The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (2013)

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Ruth and Harry retired to their beach house a few years ago. Harry did not get to enjoy much of the house, since he died shortly after moving in, leaving Ruth on her own, in this isolated house. Her sons are in New Zealand and Hong Kong thus, although they call her regularly, she does not get to spend much time with them. One night, Ruth feels as if a tiger is in her house. She knows there is no wild animal, but she can feel it. The morning after, a woman knocks at Ruth’s door; she’s been sent by the government to take care of her. Her name is Frida and she moves everything around in Ruth’s life and breaks the routine of the pensioner with her extravagant hairstyles which she changes on a daily basis. She is tall, stout, and dark and to Ruth, she looks Fijian which reminds her of her childhood, her missionary parents, her first love, and the sight of the young Queen Elizabeth at a ball.

‘She thought of Harry as she lay there in the garden because she knew he was dead, and she knew she had forgotten he was dead. That seemed the same as forgetting he had lived.’

It is incredibly difficult to sum up The Night Guest and do it justice, without completely revealing the end. What I can say is that this is a wonderful little gem about ageing, love, and trust. It is quite rare that recent releases give me a lot of things to say about them, I tend to read them to relax and shift gears from my beloved lengthy Victorian tomes. However, Fiona McFarlane’s debut is an accomplishment and it moved me beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I actually found very refreshing to read the story of a 75-year-old, I am too used to reading Bildungsroman so I rarely deal with the elderly (except when they are old spinsters with a lot of money to inherit of) and this novel challenged my habits, putting things into perspective as a consequence. It really made me ponder on being older and alone, which is a tragic reality of our society. Ruth lives in a isolated house on a beach in Australia, but it is a fact that, past a certain age, you can live in a big city and be just as isolated as her.

Of course, this novel also deals with dementia. I thought this term was a bit too strong for Ruth, at first; she feels there’s a tiger in her house, but she deals pretty well on her own and lives a nice and quiet life with her cats. What I felt at first, is more the fact that at a certain point, the brain is not as efficient as it used to be and some connections are late to be made – if made at all. But then, I realised that she mentions her sons as infants, and her husband on several occasions, but never really thinks in details of her adult life. What Ruth mostly remembers is her childhood on Fiji, she looks back on this episode of her life and remembers all the little details. Obviously, this hints strongly at the fact that she may have started a degenerative phase of her life. The story is narrated at the third person, but really you are in Ruth’s head so you do not understand fully all the situations and because of her age, she doubts herself so you find yourself doubting absolutely everything. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate truth from lies: a guest comes to her house… or not? Frida locked her in… or did she? This feeling kept me on edge and made the novel gripping, as well as incredibly hard on an emotional level.

‘It was one thing, maybe, to die […] but it was quite another to go on being dead. That was obstinate; it was unkind.’

The Night Guest gave me a lot of food for thought, and I cannot recommend it enough. Ruth is a very endearing character because she is very sweet with her taste for swearing and her constant daydreaming. She just wants to tell her story to someone, and it is very pleasant to be this person.

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I thought of that painting to illustrate my article, it’s The Dream by Douanier Rousseau (1910). A fragile woman with two tigers lurking in the dark… that’s our story!

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”

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Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

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After the death of her father, 28-year-old Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes goes to live with her brother, her sister-in-law and their two daughters in London. There, she becomes a sort of nanny, always busy with very few moments for herself.  She is seen as somewhat of an eccentric because she never really expresses any sort of interest in getting a husband. But after years of good services, she decides to be in charge of the money that her father left her (which her brother had been responsible for so far) and rent a room in a village in the Chiltern Hills. There, for the first time in her life, as a forty something, she leads the life she wants to have and has no one to tell her what is proper to do. Her nephew, Titus, falls in love with the place, too, and decides to move in with his aunt. Laura, feeling her independence slipping through her fingers, becomes a witch and after a series of misfortunes, Titus goes back to London leaving his aunt on her own, doing whatever she feels like doing.

“The night was at her disposal. She might walk back to Great Mop and arrive very late; or she might sleep out and not trouble to arrive till to-morrow. Whichever she did Mrs Leak would not mind. That was one of the advantages of dealing with witches; they do not mind if you are a little odd in your ways, frown if you are late for meals, fret if you are out all night, pry and commiserate when at length you return. Lovely to be with people who prefer their thoughts to yours, lovely to live at your own sweet will, lovely to sleep out all night!”

I first heard about this novel in the amazing How to Be a Heroine, by Samantha Ellis. I was obviously very intrigued by the story of this middle-aged woman turning to witchcraft to gain independence. It is a very intriguing story, indeed, but not one about wizardry per say. Most of the novel tells Laura’s childhood and family history, and her life in London with her brother. Only about a quarter of the book is devoted to Laura’s life at Great Mop, the little hamlet where she finds shelter from everybody.

To me, this story reads more like a proto-feminist manifesto. Laura’s loving father taught her many thing, but not exactly how to be the perfect Edwardian housewife (the story starts in 1906, when Laura is 28). He shared with her many things that have led her to be her own person. And so the book is about Laura’s quest to be her own, on her own. Everyone who enjoys time on their own will understand Laura. Imagine your life if the only time you could have for yourself was at night, when you sleep. It would drive you insane, actually. But her sister-in-law, Caroline is very active and busy and never leaves a moment to rest to herself or Laura. So during one of her errands, Laura stops at this grocery shop and falls into a reverie and dreams of being in an orchard, where she can enjoy nature on her own.

A few hours later, she has made her decision to move away from London… on her own. Everybody is rather angry and astonished by this strange decision but here she goes anyway. At Great Mop, she is alone or at very best lonely, and she loves it. She feels young again and reconnect with some habits she had in her youth – when she was living in Somerset with her dad. It seems like a rather drastic decision nowadays that, in order to have time on your own, you have to leave everything and everyone behind… or is it? I can relate to Laura, although my move was quite the opposite of hers: I escaped my small French village to settle down in London, and there only, away from my friends and family, did I manage to find some peace of mind. Obviously, I did not have to wonder on what people would think because it is now pretty common for a woman to move away on her own. But Laura, in the end, did not have to face that problem either because at Great Mop, nobody really asked her questions on where she would spend her day or why she would roam the fields at dusk.

Three years later, Virginia Woolf asked for a room of her own to write, but in Lolly Willowes, Susan Townsend Warner is asking for a life of her own in order to actually live, and escape this state of merely living that most women – especially single – could have. As a result, this novel is very moving because it just asks for one simple thing, a thing that every human being should be entitled to have.

“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence so soon becomes a nuisance.”

This book is also very moving because it praises a simple life, turned towards nature and simple relationships. It is quite easy to feel close to Laura because she is a very normal person, but she is also surprising in the strength of her character – which, obviously, is really enjoyable. I loved how she was just not interested in having a husband. Not because she didn’t like the men she had met, but just because she didn’t feel the need to be married. She remarks the handsome figure of her young neighbour farmer, but there is never desire for more. She also explains how she particularly liked to dance with a young woman during the Sabbath, and that may be the only hint at a sexuality. The author was a lesbian and she lived with a woman, a writer as well. However, I like to see Laura as an asexual (although the term would be quite anachronistic, I think); and having a character with no desire for sexual or romantic relationships, even today, is somehow groundbreaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lolly Willowes and would recommend it to absolutely anyone. The only problematic issue for me was that Laura got helped by Satan, who has the appearance of a man, and she recognises that she belongs to him, now that she’s a witch. Although this “man” helps her in a way that makes her independent, I couldn’t help but to think that it would have been amazing if she didn’t have to belong to anybody or anyone.

However, this is still a very modern and original book that won’t leave any reader indifferent. I have finished this story a while ago, now, and I am still thinking of it, I have so many questions! And that, I think, is a sign of a great book.

“I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn’t matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed. Doing,  doing, doing, till mere habit scolds at them like a housewife, and rouses them up – when they might sit in their doorways and think – to be doing still!”