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Should We Assume Rebecca Is Horrible?

A screen shot of Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier as the heroine and Max in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

Screen shot from Rebecca, copyright © 1940 Selznick International Pictures.

When I was researching my post on jealousy, there was a sentence in an interview with Kit Browning, Daphne Du Maurier’s son, that gave me pause. He said that it’s only Max who gives us the idea that Rebecca was a horrible person.

It’s somewhat true; the only person (almost – more on this later) who actually says anything that could make us think badly of her is Max, but we’d been thinking badly of her for a long while beforehand; our opinion of Rebecca is shaped by the heroine’s feelings and our thoughts of Mrs Danvers. And it’s wrong, really. Rebecca isn’t Mrs Danvers and the heroine had nothing to do with the first wife.

It’s the haunted atmosphere that first forms in us an opinion. As much as we can’t attribute the heroine’s feelings to Rebecca herself, at minimum we feel she haunts the place. And haunting is seen as a negative thing thus we feel worried, even if we don’t notice we do. We get glimpses of who Rebecca was: a person supposedly good at running a house, at playing host, at fancy dress, and these glimpses affect our opinion of her.

It’s Mrs Danvers who takes it up a step. Mrs Danvers’ obsession, her manipulation of the heroine, the subtle threats, the hint that throwing oneself out of the window is the right thing to do – all these seem to reflect Rebecca because whilst we don’t know for sure how Rebecca felt, we assume Mrs Danvers’ love was reciprocated. And in the absence of Rebecca herself, Mrs Danvers becomes her substitute, her stand in. That Max later says Rebecca was horrible only seems to back it up.

Should we consider Mrs Danvers’ mental state? Either she’s suffering from her loss of Rebecca so much it has caused her to become a supposed monster or she has some evil in her – that fire does not speak of a stable mind but as other stories and real life shows, a person can do something extreme because they are lost, hurt, and in need of help. Yes, this paragraph does smell of trying to make amends for bad things, like people are trying to say now that Henry VIII was bad because of this, that, and the other, but in Mrs Danvers’ case we know she was close to Rebecca.

Beatrice isn’t nasty about Rebecca, but she doesn’t seem enthralled, is instead quite blaïse and therefore we don’t really consider her thoughts once we’re further along. Jack, appearing shifty, does what Mrs Danvers does – infers a horrible person by association, though at least in this case Max’s revelation has more in it that applies directly to the person. Frank likes the heroine, does so from the start, which may signal a distaste for Rebecca – certainly the contrast between him, Max’s friend, and Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s friend, seems a bit of a literary decision, a balancing of the scales.

But then there’s Ben, who tells the heroine Rebecca threatened to place him in an asylum if he told anyone that he’d seen her doing… well, we’re not sure, but it was something she obviously shouldn’t have been doing. The potential problem with Ben is that he’s presented as unreliable, but considering we already know about Mrs Danvers, we might consider him more reliable than the heroine herself might. We don’t know much else about Ben, so perhaps we shouldn’t believe him, but then there’s also no reason not to. Ben is a minor character, so perhaps Kit Browning forgot him, or perhaps the whole idea that Ben is unreliable, unstable, was enough to make him irrelevant in this respect – should we trust Du Maurier’s son’s omission as a sign Ben is unreliable?

As for the book itself, Du Maurier ensures we are spooked and considering she wants us to dislike Rebecca, that the book is about jealousy, we don’t really have much chance to feel differently unless we make a decision to read in a different way than we ‘should’ do, disbelieving the author herself at every turn. Rebecca’s written as controlling, promiscuous, horrible; there’s the hint that she was as nasty as Mrs Danvers – perhaps it was that her place in society meant she had cause to hide it.

Rebecca never really had a hope; Kit may be right insofar as the book’s concerned, that it’s only Max who gives us the idea, but his (Kit’s) mother wanted us to think that anyway so it could well be said Du Maurier gives us the idea herself. Just think of that ‘R’ – the text is written to make us dislike Rebecca.

Should we be thinking anything about Rebecca, characters and author aside? Society and common sense would tell us to listen to what people say but to also meet the person… at least meet her as much as we could. In worldly terms we should be thinking twice about befriending her but holding off on a final judgement. Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of advice that Du Maurier is able to grip us so well.

The commonly accepted idea is that we should read a book without letting our views of the author and our knowledge of the author’s life play a role, but in this book it’s a bit different. It’s not simply that Du Maurier’s feelings are included, as it is Charlotte Brontë’s in Villette, or the plethora of writers whose works have been panned because their views are offensive – Du Maurier’s book revolves around her thoughts in a different way that’s hard to explain. I don’t think she’d mind if we chose not to listen to the gossip she writes and to push aside any manipulation, but to like Rebecca would be to miss the point of the book.

Your thoughts?

Sue Gee – Trio

Book Cover

The healing powers of music.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 308
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63061-4
First Published: 16th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Margaret dies early in the marriage; Steven is devastated but knows he must keep going. One day his colleague at school invites him to a concert and though Steven has no knowledge of music he enjoys it, and comes to enjoy the company of his colleague’s childhood friend. His loss will always be with him but in Margot and her music he sees light ahead.

Trio is a book set in the couple of years prior to the Second World War that looks at sadness, tragedy, and the way we deal with it. A beautiful work of literary fiction, it’s full of originality and sports a lovely uniqueness.

And then the gas masks came. In every classroom, throughout the lunch hour, came the struggle to fit the things on, the coughing and heaving at the rubbery smell, the helpless laughter as the trunks were waved about; the trumpeting.
‘Look at you, Hindmarsh!’
‘Look at yourself, Potts. You look prehistoric.’
‘All right, boys, that’s enough.’

Gee’s been writing for years and it shows. Her writing style is rather like a script; the author includes description in the third person but will then switch to dialogue in a way that means you hear a lot more about the situation in a sort of faux first person. Many of the descriptions of thoughts turn out similarly. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it is something that everyone is likely to appreciate, at the very least. It’s a literary dialogue, at once between the author and her characters – rendering them in a realistic fashion – and also between the author and the reader, both a breaking of the fourth wall and a hiding behind it. It means that every single character who speaks – every pupil in Steven’s class who gets a mention – stays in mind as though they were all main characters.

Sadness informs most every part of this book. It’s everywhere but Gee never lets it burden the text itself, meaning that whilst this book may be triggering if you’ve recently lost a loved one, it’s not a book you’ll need to avoid for long. But whilst not burdening the text, Gee never covers up, showing how sadness carries on, lingers far longer than our speaking of it shows. In this way she demonstrates how that point wherein society says ‘okay, enough moping now’ shouldn’t be taken as wholly as we often do – everyone suffers losses and it’s okay to refer to it in the future.

There are various tragedies: Steven’s loss of Margaret, a person’s ‘loss’ of the friend they are in love with (twice over in this case), the way a rebuff of affections can lead to awful conclusions. Many of the losses are connected but few are vocalised. Gee uses a bit of mystery in order to explain certain emotions – they aren’t mysteries you need to work out as it’s pretty clear who is who and what is what, it’s that the emotions need to be hidden between the characters because of a feeling of shame or worry that is down to their situation, their relation to one another, and the time in which they are living.

The book is fantastic right up until the last couple of dozen pages. Everything ebbs along and you’re ready for the inevitable start of the war and in seeing where it takes the characters and then suddenly you’re pulled forward to our present day. There is no conclusion to Steven and his friends’ stories, instead you move on to the latter years of Steven and Margot’s son, a person you’d not met. Why this was done is not clear – presumably it was so that we could learn the outcome of everyone’s lives, but this is small compensation; the information could have been provided in an epilogue or, because there’s really only one character you ‘need’ to hear about, communicated naturally at the end.

As for the musical episodes they are mainly good, if a bit overwritten. Steven’s lack of knowledge means that Gee goes into a lot of detail, romanticising the sounds and effects of music; when it’s part of the subtext it’s glorious. The trio of the title don’t quite make the book what it is – that’s Steven’s role – but they play their part; it’s more that they’re the ones through whom people are connected.

Trio is difficult to put down. It’s a gorgeous escape back in time that for all its – needed – sadness, is gripping. The end does come out of left field but the overall product is wonderful.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Poverty And Kindness In Cranford


The most striking thing to me about Cranford, in terms of themes and structure, is the poverty. The way poverty is incorporated; the background usage of it is implemented in such a way as to allow Gaskell to bring it up without bringing it up. It’s hard to explain so I’m just going to get on with it.

Poverty is at the heart of much in the town. The vast majority of people are pretty poor and they aim not to reference it directly – it’s the case that they all know about everyone else’s circumstances but for proprieties’ sake they don’t discuss it. Gaskell’s handling of this is what forms some of the humour, a feat that is both ironic and heartening.

The beginning introduces us to this idea of no one directly mentioning poverty. We have the following:

I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face.

and then:

The Cranfordians had that kindly esprit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty. When Mrs Forrester, for instance, gave a party in her baby-house of a dwelling, and the little maiden disturbed the ladies on the sofa by a request that she might get the tea-tray out from underneath, everyone took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world, and talked on about household forms and ceremonies as if we all believed that our hostess had a regular servants’ hall, second table, with housekeeper and steward, instead of the one little charity-school maiden, whose short ruddy arms could never have been strong enough to carry the tray upstairs, if she had not been assisted in private by her mistress, who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up, though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making teabread and sponge-cakes.

The tea tray incident is what sets us up for future references, Gaskell showing the ritual the town has constructed to get around the issue of poverty causing offence.

Beyond the humour, which is the most apparent thing, we have this sense of kindness that is likely part of Gaskell’s plan in relating the episode, given what we know of her personality and views, but could equally just be an added benefit of the propriety. For all Cranford can be a bit snotty, a bit too precious a place and against new male arrivals, when it comes to money everyone sticks together.

Sometimes the issue can cause a sort of comedy of errors – there are times when a person is so conscious of hiding their poverty, and the poverty of their relations, that they end up causing offence to others. There’s a particular slice of this in chapter eight wherein Mrs Jamieson, richer than the rest, forbids any sort of meeting between her Cranford friends and her sister-in-law – a Lady from Scotland. That Mrs Jamieson, someone not considered so far above the rest other than in money, should do this, strikes the characters as offensive, makes them feel inferior. They in turn snub Lady Glenmire, refusing to so much as glance at her in church.

Gaskell soon pulls back the curtains; we readers learn that the reason Mrs Jamieson refused meetings is that Lady Glenmire is poor and she, Mrs Jamieson, is, in true Cranford fashion, a little ashamed. She doesn’t want her friends to know. The ‘reveal’ isn’t commented on so much by the characters, it’s simply reported neutrally by the narrator who, as an ex-resident, we can assume is perhaps Gaskell herself; Gaskell wants to narrate but not from the distance that would be afforded if she were to write from her own perspective as an author.

It’s during all this snubbing that Gaskell shows us the upshot to the divide between servants and their mistresses – whilst there’s not a big divide due to everyone’s poverty, there’s divide enough that the women get a servant to observe Lady Glenmire for them and report back because:

Martha did not belong to a sphere of society whose observation could be an implied compliment to Lady Glenmire, and Martha had made good use of her eyes.

Because Martha’s seen as lower, she can look.

Lady Glenmire’s own poverty brings us to another factor of the theme: Captain Brown. In the Captain, a newcomer, Gaskell shows another way of dealing with poverty. To Brown, poverty is nothing to be ashamed of; he speaks of his own with ease. Gaskell, in creating this conflict of interests, adds humour to soften the ‘blow’ – the problem the residents have with Brown at this juncture, is compounded by his being a man in a women’s domain. The hint is there – ladies don’t speak of money, men do – though this isn’t to say that Gaskell is calling it a problem because she isn’t. She isn’t dividing the sexes, she’s merely using stereotypes to make humour, to get some artistic license going and exaggerate her characters.

But it does have the effect of showing that whilst there’s kindness in keeping shtum about poverty amongst those living in it, there’s no reason to be ashamed.

Poverty is seen in Mrs Forrester’s hiring of a boy to stay nights at her house in case of robberies. At first glance it’s a way of helping the boy’s family feed another mouth, but the reality is seen in what Mrs Forrester offers as payment – food and lodging. She doesn’t offer money and it’s not commented on because it doesn’t need to be at this point – we know she doesn’t offer money because she doesn’t have any. It’s less a hiring of a servant and more an agreement between neighbours.

In chapter thirteen, near the end of the novella, Miss Matty insists on exchanging a man’s worthless cheque for her own money, in a shop, on account of her being a share holder of his bank. This comes as a bit of a shock – after we’ve been told Cranford is poor, that Miss Matty has money behind her is a surprise – but it’s also full of that kindness; and the context, of the bank being in trouble, shows that Miss Matty may shortly be out of pocket. Certainly she says she’ll have to wait a few days longer to purchase the gown she’s after. Once she’s home we learn she earns £149 a year as a share holder, a substantial sum in those days, and that to lose it would drop her annual income to £13. Through this Gaskell reminds us of that kindness, once again, that everybody helping everybody factor seen in the tea tray incident and Mrs Forrester’s meals as wages.

We then come full circle, if you will, when Miss Matty’s servant, the afore-mentioned Martha, is told of the situation that has indeed happened – Miss Matty is to receive no more from the bank – and that she will no longer be employed. Martha turns the tables. The servant, by all accounts not well-off, not only defies Miss Matty to make a pudding out of her wages, she then brings in her beau and suggests Miss Matty live with them. If we in our modern era needed any more information about the straits Miss Matty is facing, apart from the thought of selling furniture and getting what we’d now call a studio apartment, Martha’s request fills us in. Martha feels so warmly for Miss Matty that she’s almost forcing her boyfriend to marry her right now so they can get a house so Miss Matty can live with them. And the boyfriend, whilst not against marriage, isn’t quite ready and isn’t really on board with talk of a lodger – it’s simply culture that would allow it to happen. In Cranford he’s but a man, after all.

We’ve the meeting of three ladies of Cranford, proposing they work in tandem with the narrator’s father (we finally get a name for our narrator!) to provide Matty a yearly income without her knowing her friends are behind it. This is heartening in itself but it’s Mrs Forrester’s later admission to the narrator, our newly ‘baptised’ Mary Smith – that she’ll have to make cut backs in her own life to do it that’s most sobering. The women will live even more cheaply themselves so their friend will not suffer so much.

This is then contrasted by the news that Mrs Jamieson is coming home to throw out Lady Glenmire because Lady Glenmire is to marry a poor doctor. Mrs Jamieson’s shame of Glenmire’s poverty continues and Gaskell shows the relative unkindness – her well-off character is not a nice person when compared to the poorer ones who help each other. That Miss Matty ultimately gets a measure of wealth back is neither here nor there.

This novella is a big statement from Gaskell. On the surface you’ve a light, fun, novella, but conscious of society as always, the author brings in some damning truths, only she uses those truths to show the goodness of fellow man. It may not be North And South, but upon further contemplation, it’s really not that far from it either.

Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

Book Cover

Running to rather than from.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 278
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11547-2
First Published: 31st December 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

Understanding she has become dependent on alcohol and that despite earlier thoughts it’s not making her feel better, rather it’s making her feel worse, Amy Liptrot enrolls at a treatment centre and then decides to move back home to Orkney from London to see if bettering her location can help her recover from her addiction. In moving back she becomes in tune with nature, enjoying all the things she’d left, helping her father on the farm, taking long coastal walks, and helping the RSPB in their research.

The Outrun is part memoir, part nature book, that Liptrot wrote whilst back in Orkney. It’s got a lovely atmosphere to it and it’s full of information both historical and natural, about addiction and the journey to sobriety with all its struggles.

The first thing you notice is that Liptrot can really write. Whilst writing was therapeutic for her in her time of upheaval, in its publication it could be said to have become therapeutic for the reader too. There’s nothing particular about it – one can’t say she uses big or small words or the work is peppered with such and such – it’s more the general feel of it. The book’s written atmosphere is shaped in part by its theme – flocks of birds, windy but beautiful days, talk of old stones and cliffs and everything of the sort the Brontës would have championed, which of course play a big role – as it is by Liptrot’s sheer raw talent. The text ebbs and flows, never gaining a momentum it could lose, and at many points you’d think you were reading an award-winning novel.

This said there’s a great deal of repetition in the book. Writing for herself, it makes sense that there would be rambling and repetition, but as a publication the book could’ve done with being a bit shorter, more linear (it’s very easy to become confused as to where you are in time). The self-absorbed feel to the book is more a case of this repetition than Liptrot’s feelings, or at least it certainly seems that way. (Some self-absorption is of course par for the course.) For this repetition the book can be easy to put down and difficult to resume.

To the subjects, then, and as said, the nature writing is lovely. In many ways this book seems more about the nature and history of Orkney than Liptrot’s addiction which, given what I’ve said about self-absorption, works in its favour, though by no means does the recovery take a back seat. Liptrot is adept at blending her personal life with the nature of Orkney; they become one and the same when she can find a way to speak in metaphors, but equally there are times when it all just seems so natural to blend them together. Liptrot’s focus is on the wildlife of the islands, specifically the birds – there is less on farming than you might expect though she does talk at length about methods and the journey from bog-standard farming to organic. (Any lamb you happen to buy from the north of Britain may well have come from Liptrot’s family farm.)

The hill is studded with craters from when it was used by the Royal Navy for target practice in the Second World War and test shells were fired from ships onto the island. The holes are filled with rainwater in the winter and range from the size of a paddling pool to that of a jacuzzi. It is said that one bomb came further south than intended and just missed a farmer’s wife but killed her cow. After the war, a sailor from one of the launch ships
could not believe their target island had been inhabited.

In focus, too, is astronomy. Perhaps inevitably given the location, Liptrot becomes a connoisseur of the night sky, speaking of stars, the planets, and also cloud formations and the Northern Lights. And then there’s the Neolithic history all over the isles: Skara Brae, a settlement of stone-built homes under the earth to protect from the harsh weather, ancient tombs, standing stones. Tragedies at sea, wherein ships crash against the cliffs, result in their own historic stories and findings. There is so much to this book, something for most people, and because of Liptrot’s determination to make her book as informative as it is personal, you learn a lot.

Lately I’ve noticed a gradual reprogramming. In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink, to get into the pub or the off-license. A house-moving day years ago once ended a month-long attempt at sobriety. Now, sometimes, I’m not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but ‘Get in the sea’. Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change. I am finding new priorities and pleasures for my free time. I’ve known this was possible but it takes a while for emotions to catch up with intellect. I am getting stronger.

I wanted to focus on the wider aspects before dealing with the alcohol side of the book. Liptrot details her time as an alcoholic with a fierce openness; she discusses parties and a break-up that haunts her for years, and also an attack, sexual encounters, and other incredibly personal details. There’s a picking apart of right and wrong, missteps, but never any self-pity beyond a few what ifs. This isn’t to say that any other way of speaking is wrong, it isn’t, but Liptrot’s manner means her book may interest people who might not be otherwise interested. The recovery is spoken of in detail, too, so this could be considered both a self-help aid without the negative associations often levied on self-help books, and a book with a wealth of information for those who want to know what it’s like. The book may well aid another’s recovery as well as help a person who knows someone with addiction develop more empathy and an understanding to help them assist and show support.

The Outrun is an impressive work in many ways for many reasons, its beauty slipping out from every crevice. It may lose its way textually at times but never errs in its wonder.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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Mavis Cheek – Dog Days

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Separating for the kid.

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Pat is leaving Gordon, buying a new home, getting a dog for her daughter who has said if they must lose Daddy she wants a dog, and starting life afresh. She should have done it years ago – she should have never married him. Love isn’t on the cards; Pat has no intentions of another relationship, she’s just looking forward to being herself again.

Dog Days is at once a light and easy-going story, and an honest look at the breakdown of a marriage, a person’s resurfacing after divorce into the person they used to be. At times very blunt, Cheek’s book is one that delves into things that are difficult to talk about whilst nevertheless remaining breezy. The Times has said ‘Mavis Cheek seems to have cracked the conundrum of how to write decent novels with popular appeal’, and that’s a good way to sum it up.

Rachel gave me my pass through life. She was, anyway, the only reason I was in this situation.

Cheek is open about the problems that can come with having children – whilst it’s obvious to the reader and to Pat herself that Rachel’s birth did not exactly change Gordon (more that it allowed her to see who he was), it was in having Rachel that Pat felt bound to her then boyfriend and so an accidental pregnancy led to her life going quite a different way than planned. Gordon was not the one for Pat – he’s stingy, having plenty of money but never treating his wife nor his daughter, and only cares about himself. He turns on the charm when he wants to manipulate his daughter to get what he wants.

But equally, as much as Cheek is honest about the affect of children and the way a person should think beforehand as to whether they truly do want to be a parent, she is open about how much happiness they can bring. Rachel doesn’t cause Pat to be exuberant, it’s more a case that Rachel’s intelligence continues to baffle her mother, in a good way, and the girl, older than her years it seems to her mother, is a good companion. Whilst Pat would not have stayed with Gordon if it weren’t for Rachel, nevertheless Rachel is obviously a good factor in Pat’s life.

More than children, Cheek just speaks of relationships. When asked by her solicitor, Pat struggles to find a tidy reason for getting a divorce; this is where Cheek’s exploration of resentment and sadness comes in. Pat can’t sum up her reason in a sentence. She can’t say she was abused, or that Gordon cheated, and so begins a long, excellent, section wherein she narrates various episodes in her life that show why she wants to leave her husband. Cheek shows how it isn’t always cut and dried, and that listing reasons doesn’t always work.

Amongst this exploration is some humour. It’s the sort of easy joviality that keeps the pace steady and the pages turning on the occasions when what you’re reading about is quite bleak. A lot of it revolves around Pat’s distaste for dogs and her slow journey towards becoming a dog person:

Eventually, with considerable effort on my part, we selected the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound. Rachel wanted the racy little cross between a Jack Russell and a something (a very something), but it had far too many of Gordon’s traits for my liking. Small and wiry with bright snapping eyes; a prominent, urgent profile and – I could sense – totally selfish motives behind its cocky, winning ways. I had lived with one like that for too long in its human form to burden myself with another, albeit four-legged and linked to me in animal slavery. Whereas the wet-looking mongrel had not an ounce of spunk left in it.

Brian, the dog of the title, doesn’t really do much, he’s no Scooby Do or Lassie – the title is more about the time itself, those days. Brian’s the subtle presence, there for Rachel, there for Pat once she thaws a bit towards him, and a menace once or twice when Pat’s too sure he’s the right dull dog for her.

The main thing to bare in mind is Pat’s illogical misunderstanding which spans a good few chapters. There comes a point when Pat mistakes someone for being in a relationship and it gets a bit grating because it’s blatantly obvious that they aren’t and therefore comes across as a lengthening device. Once cleared up, Pat notes it should have occurred to her, but that doesn’t atone for the frustration.

This aside, Dog Days is a funny, half-escapist, half-brutal-with-good-reason read. It’s honest, it’s realistic, and yet its status as an easy page-turning book never wavers.

I received this book for review on behalf of the publisher.

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