The Country Girls trilogy – Edna O’Brien

The last title in the trilogy.

The last title in the trilogy with this great 1960’s book cover.

 

Wow. This was quite a reading ride with two Irish young women who travel through life with nary a plan except to marry some handsome bloke and have a few gins along the way. This trilogy, written in the early to mid-1960’s, is a wonderful and very gritty look back at Baba and Caithlynn as they manage to leave their small worlds in rural Ireland chasing their own dreams for their lives. It’s very kitchen-sink drama, and there were times when I wanted to just sit them down and have a few choice words with them, but I really did enjoy this read.

Hmm. “Enjoy” is not the word I’m searching for. Perhaps “observe” the two is the more precise verb. I veered from being annoyed with them to feeling sorry with them, so perhaps it’s more than “observe”…

Both the two girls grow up in a small rural village in Ireland, Baba with a more stable and financially comfortable family situation, and Caithlynn with a horribly alcoholic and abusive father and a mother who cannot/will not leave but protects the young girl from her father. (Not many choices available to good Catholic girls who are unhappily married with children at that time of the century.)

Both the girls have an uncomfortable relationship with each other that veers from being good friends to one bullying the other (Baba bullies Caithlynn and gets away with it. Unequal power in a friendship is not a good sign especially in children.)

Stuck with each other due to their small village and school, their friendship changes from day to day (depending on how mean Baba is to Caithlynn) and I found this part of the trilogy very hard to read about. I can’t stand it when someone bullies someone else, and I just wanted to step into the novel and help poor Cat, but I couldn’t.

So – I just had to read and watch as Baba did some despicable things, but it was also with a sense of fascination as you just knew that somewhere along that narrative arc, Cat would get her due. She’d have to after taking all that viciousness for that long. But would she? So my fingers were crossed as I read…

Baba and Cat are both good young Catholic girls (with everything that went along with that in the 1960’s) and they both knew what happened to girls who weren’t good: hellfire, family exile, on the streets… The pair are sent to middle school at a convent a few miles away from home, but having no transportation options that were affordable, they were boarders. Cat had been offered a scholarship (thankfully as there is no way that her family could have afforded it otherwise) and had been relieved at such a good escape from mean Baba, but then Baba decides to apply as well and her family can afford even if there is no scholarship for her.

And this seems to be how it was throughout the whole trilogy: Cat struggling to escape home life and Baba; Baba always somehow beating Cat to the punch whether it’s getting a bicycle or a bedsit. It was really annoying for me to suffer through this, as I can so relate to how mean children and teens can be. This was tortuous.

So why did Baba stick so tenaciously with Cat? Baba needed her to bully and to feel powerful? Cat needed Baba as she had no other friends? They both needed each other as they navigated the rocky shores of adolescence?

This sounds a dreadfully depressing and grey book, and it’s certainly not rainbows and unicorns, but if you like reading kitchen-sink dramas (which I was in the mood for), this is a great read.

The first book covers their childhood and adolescence, the second their escape to a small town with equally tiny jobs and sharing a bedsit, and then the third – had they both escaped their dreary worlds and each other? Do they find their own Mr. Rights? You’ll have to read it to find out, but please do. This was a riveting if uncomfortable read at times. (Rather reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye in some ways in that both feature young girls getting bullied by their “friends” and yet no one doing anything about it. Gaah.)

Not always the easiest titles to get hold of, but worth the trial. I’m glad I met Cat – perhaps not so much about meeting the other one!

Plus my edition of the final book in the trilogy was great. It had been published in 1965 and had the perfect cover (see above), along with this titillating cover copy:

And then inside was this:

Oooh la la. You can just imagine women reading this under cover. Shocking stuff!

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief – Lawrence Wright (2013) (DNF)

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After having read and loved Janet Reitman’s non-fiction book on Scientology (see link below), I was really interested to see that another investigative journalistic book called “Going Clear” also about this provocative belief system was available at the library and I whisked it off the shelf as quickly as I could. It seemed to check all my interest boxes: religious thought, Pulitzer Prize winner writer, interesting/provocative subject, celebrity, public relations/influence etc…

And at first, it was quite ok. The subject was fascinating, but as page followed page (right up to when I finally resigned from reading it on page 158), the writing style seemed to bug me. However, it was hard to pin down what, exactly, it was that was annoying until it hit me: this Pulitzer Prize winning writer used the same sentence structure and the same average sentence length (about 15 words) for almost EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE in every single paragraph. Oh. My God. It was painful to read despite the riveting topic.

Now, I must admit that I haven’t read the work for which Wright was awarded the Pulitzer (The Looming Towers), but perhaps that was written in a different style. Obviously someone liked it enough to get that award, and someone liked this book enough to make it a finalist in the National Book Award event. But that someone wasn’t me. This book seemed to have been written by a computer, perhaps, or maybe an intern. The information itself was great, but how it was presented was repetitive and boring: “In the morning, Dick and Jane went to the park and saw the ducks. The ducks were hungry and the children fed them bread that they had got from home in the village…” Subject, verb, object with the same length of sentences. It was like reading a freshman composition essay in college.

Tons of information was included – so much that it seemed padded at times, and oh – did I mention the repetitive sentence structure and length?…

I was really disappointed as I was looking forward to reading some more about L. Rob Hubbard et al as I think he’s a fascinating topic in his own special way. (Compare this read with another book that I’ve read on Scientology: Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman).

If you’re going to read a balanced well-written non-fiction book on scientology, I would highly recommend the Reitman book. The Wright one will have you doing facepalms due to its elementary writing style.

Diary of a Pilgrimage – Jerome K. Jerome (1895)

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Jerome K. Jerome is a Victorian/Edwardian writer most famous for his literary comic masterpiece of “Three Men in a Boat”, but his range was larger than that as evidenced by the enjoyable “Diary of a Pilgrimage”. It’s a novel about an overland journey of two gentlemen who travel to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Germany. This play has been performed every ten years since 1634 (almost every year that ends in “0” and is a religious event for the villagers (in perpetuity) to say thanks for sparing them from a plague that ravished the surrounding countryside.

Jerome’s writing is strong, but this is a confusing work as it seemed to vacillate wildly between being pretty funny and satirical (Jerome has a good sense of humor) to serious contemplations of religion to travel writing. It’s rather a roller-coaster as I was never certain what kind of writing the next chapter would bring: would I laugh or would I be asked to consider something serious such as Christianity? (And that’s ok – this book revolves around a Christian play after all.)

Apart from that slight confusion, Jerome writes some fabulous descriptions of some of the characters that he and his traveling companion B come across especially a scene at the beer garden as they wend their way home post-play. It’s a quick read with some similar humor to “Three Men…” but also a surprisingly serious side as well.

Oberammergau

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion – Janet Reitman (2011)

Scientology - ReitmanA fascinating, well documented and balanced (to me) approach about the puzzling world of Scientology. This is not a damning book (although it seems that there is plenty of fodder for that), but more of a neutral outside journalist peering in, collecting information and knowledge for five years, and then collating it together. From my non-Scientology perspective, it was riveting in so many ways. I have difficulty understanding how smart and otherwise rational people will sign a billion-year contract (to include past, current and future lives)  to “serve” this group (aka “the Cause”) and to hand over thousands and thousands of dollars and incredibly personal information that could be used against them when it looks like a big con job to me.

However, this is just me thinking that. Obviously, lots of other people disagree and if they want to spend thousands of dollars learning how to be “clear” (the highest level of spiritual growth as deemed by this church), then who am I to judge? It just seems to be that once one is in this religious group, it’s very hard to get out, and if you do, there are widespread consequences.

Plus having Tom Cruise as a lead spokesman does not really help with credibility that much.

hubbardOriginated by L. Ron Hubbard, a revisionist historian extraordinaire* and early science fiction writer, the history needs to be read to be believed.  It’s an amazing story. Hubbard has been quoted as saying “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start a new religion…”

Hubbard (or “LRH” as he is commonly referred to by Scientologists) claimed to be many things over the years and all embellished: he claimed that he had been an explorer, a naval hero, awarded himself a Ph.D. from a degree mill, claimed to be a nuclear physicist and modeled the group on military lines (allowing himself, naturellement, to be Commodore of the planet).  It’s very cheeky in some ways and somewhat disrespectful of others:  at one point, Hubbard calls himself Meytta, the “reincarnation of Buddha” (p. 102). His successor was not much of an improvement, if you ask me, although is reported to have more dictatorial tendencies.

Reading this was rather like reading a fiction story (and indeed quite a bit of it was developed out of Hubbard’s imagination) so it’s extremely difficult for me to understand people who would buy into this. (And it ain’t cheap.) But I think if you’re a “lost soul”, or perhaps someone who is looking for “answers” or perhaps a second or third generation Scientologist, then it might be easy to get sucked in to the bubble. It’s a very insular world and to question anything means that you run the risk of being “disconnected” by your church, your friends and your family or facing other disciplinary measures.  However, a lot of people say that Scientology has helped them and if it has, good for them. It’s hard to know what the truth is as there is so much inconsistency.

You know, it reminded me of Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven”,a non-fiction book about a splinter Mormon group. In both cases, there was this one human guy who invented a story which he made into a religion, wrote it down and it happened to star him as the lead role, but this belief system (?) seems way more sinister in a way. (This model also seems to be the model for many other (although more benign) belief systems.)

This was a fascinating read and although I am still puzzled by the whole thing, at least I know a bit more than I did. It did spur me to get a book called “Feet of Clay” by Anthony Storr, which according to the publisher blurb is “an eye-opening investigation of charismatic “gurus” from Jesus to Freud to David Koresh…and uncovers the personality traits that link [them].” I am quite sure that I would not make a good cult leader, but it will be interesting to see what traits they may have.  (And no, I am not getting into a debate about what is and is not a cult.)

And here is a link of a Q&A session with author Janet Reitman from the readers of the Washington Post when the book was released. Very informative!

Anyway, this was a good read – fascinating and strange, but very interesting.

  • Just google Hubbard. His story is bizarre as it’s been rewritten so many times by both himself and others. Reitman writes what she has found out about his life story, but it’s so odd that it’s hard to know what is fact and what is fiction. He definitely had an active imagination.

The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – William Dalrymple (2003)

This was one of the biggest surprises to me as I had entered the book thinking it was going to be Raj-infused look at Delhi over the past hundred years or so. Surprise (in a good way): it’s actually goes back hundreds of year to the Mughal empire and even the Mongols (who invaded the Mughals which, due to the word play, makes me smile).

So, I actually ended up learning tons more than I had anticipated when I picked up this very readable historical travelogue. Dalrymple wrote it when he (and his wife) had been living in Delhi for about seven years, so it’s not tinged with the novelty of the place (as some Western-authored memoirs can be). This has a patina of experience to it, of acceptance of “it is what it is”. Dalrymple is also a well-read historian of the lengthy history of this remarkable city, and having lived there, has managed to delve into the lesser known parts of its story.

But this historical travel book is not hard to read – au contraire, it’s very readable as Dalrymple employs a lovely dry wit as he observes life in the city. He might hear of some small snippet of Delhi history, and get curious and then spend hours in the Delhi library further researching it, and then go off and find a Delhi historian who would actually take him to the very site where this event occurred. Dalrymple (and his wife) also committed to learning Hindu which helped break down any barriers between himself and the residents.

Covering almost everything from a small band of eunuchs to the pigeon racing fans to the old and rather sad Raj people who stayed behind when India was Partitioned back in the 1940’s and since then, have rather slipped between the cracks with neither England nor India wanting or accepting them, it’s a fascinating cross-section of an ancient city.

It’s a bit heavy in some of the history, and as the book went back further and further in time, back to the Indian legends at the beginning, I kinda glazed over that, but the more recent history was fascinating. I learned so much about before the Raj and about the history of Delhi. It’s called the City of Seven Cities as it has been built, knocked down and remade seven times as various men have come into power through lots of political and familial machinations which would make the Borgia family weep – Incest! Traitorship! Sibling rivalry! Beheading! Pulled apart by elephants! Pushed into wells alive and left to die!…

Dalrymple also brings some of the local characters into the story as well, so it’s not all dry history. He frequently uses a grumpy but very funny taxi driver to transport him to various places, and he makes a good friendship with a local historian, and his landlady is hilarious, although rather unintentionally.

The book also sorted out for me the various religions that are more common in India, and the history between them, so now I have a bit more of an idea about who believes what and when in which religion. I also have a much clearer understanding of the Pakistan/India rift, and can’t imagine why England thought it was a good idea at the time (or ever, really). Masses of people forcibly relocated to places they didn’t want to go, mostly based on religion. Crazy.

Oh, and the Djinns are spirit beings who inhabit the city and have been there since time immemorial.

So – overall, a very very good book that taught me a lot about a country that I probably will not visit, but still find fascinating. It was also an extra bonus that the author took me much farther back, historically speaking, that I had anticipated. I will definitely be reading another one of his books at some time.

William Dalrymple’s website: http://www.williamdalrymple.uk.com/

 

I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim – ed. Maria Ebrahmiji and Zahra Suratwala (2011)

This was an interesting read as it was a collection of essays written by young well educated American women who are Muslim. With so many people post-9-11 claiming ridiculous things about Muslims, I thought this was a good way to set things straight in my head about this religion. As it so happened, I learned a great deal about how life can be for these young women (all under 40).

The selection included women who were first-generation immigrants to the US (i.e. their parents were the ones who had recently immigrated and left their home land) and the families had left different countries at different times. (Being an immigrant myself, it’s always interesting to read about other immigrants.) So, this set up the stage for plenty of comparisons between the Old Country and its ways, and America and its particular ways. Most of the essayists were devout Muslims, but the degree of involvement varied. There did seem to be a disproportionate representation of lawyers, but perhaps this was just who the editors knew.

 I found it very interesting to see how common it was to resist the religious doctrine and its decrees when the women were in their teens, and how, for a lot of them, it wasn’t until their college years when they were independent from their parents and could develop their own support system of like-minded friends that some of the women featured could reclaim their religion on their own terms. This included wearing the hajib (the headwrap). The book argued that for many (non-Muslim) people, Muslim women were commonly perceived as “oppressed women in need of liberation” when, according to some of these writers, the hajib was seen as liberating and allowed them to be truer to themselves without the emphasis on external looks.

However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this sample was somewhat skewed in that all of the women were very educated (at least college degree and most with advanced degrees) and were very certain of their faith and belief system. Perhaps another anthology could be compiled with a sample of people who have a wider range of degrees of belief. Perhaps even include their mothers as representatives of immigrants coping with trying to balance Old World beliefs with New World realities. (But, to be fair to the editors, I suppose the point of this particular book was to bring attention to independent young American Muslin women, so naturally, the editors would focus on happy and positive examples of that.)

Reading this edition did encourage me to learn more about Islam as I had always thought that that the belief system supported the subjugation of women. However, perhaps like many other world religions, one can interpret spiritual writing to support one’s own view point and men have been most vocal historically?

This also opened my mind to view the hajib in ways other than suffocating and that it could be seen as even liberating in some cases. I had not really considered that option before, probably because to me, it would be terribly difficult to wear it without getting claustrophobic. (I can’t even wear a turtle neck without feeling as though I am being strangled.)

Very provocative book and one that I enjoyed.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time – Mark Adams (2011)

Mark Adams has been an adventure magazine editor for most of his career, and yet he wasn’t the most adventurous traveler in the world. He couldn’t remember the last time he went camping or carried a heavy backpack, so when the time arrived to mark the centennial of Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of the Lost City of Machu Picchu, he successfully pitched his idea of him traveling to Peru to follow in Bingham’s tracks, lack of experience and all.

I wasn’t that well versed in Machu Picchu, only having heard it briefly mentioned in other people’s travel stories, but I did relate to Adam’s complete lack of adventuresome skills and experience. (Camping – bleugh.) As the book progresses, we learn in alternate chapters about the journeys of both Bingham and Adams and how history progressed.

Adams is a good writer, plenty of self-deprecation and wit, and has organized the book very well to keep both his story and the history of the Machu Picchu expedition clear in your head. There is one map at the beginning of the book, but to be honest, it’s not very clear and not that helpful so I googled various locations as the book progressed. I learned a lot about the early Inca history, about the history of Peru, about the early history of Machu Picchu – and it all fit very well together. Additionally, Adams did a good job of blending the present in with the past, reporting how there was (at that time of printing) still some controversy as to who really “owned” the relics dug up there – Yale or the country of Peru. (This has since been sorted out, and Peru was given the historic remains as it should have been.)

One of the interesting aspects of this whole story was how few ethics Bingham had at that time about respecting the past and who owned what and when. He was a self-promoter extraordinaire and gave himself lots of the accolades for “discovering” the Lost City (even though other explorers had arrived before him, and a handful of Peruvian farmers were already living there when he arrived). He spun his adventure into several books and a whole issue of National Geographic (which was just getting started around then). Obviously, this question of ownership and discovery is not new – consider the controversy of various Egyptian discoveries etc – but what was new was Bingham was the Master of Publicity for himself and for his causes, and society was ripe and looking for a dashing explorer hero. He fit the bill.

Along with this history was also the story of Adams and his own particular journey to the Lost City with his Australian guide (rather a Crocodile Dundee kind of guy), along with their mule handlers and porters, all of whom seemed to have good stories. Adams did a good job of this – he admitted his lack of camping experience and demonstrated some of his hard-learned lessons from hiking – and yet he was very respectful of the Peruvians who provided all the support for this trip and without whom, he would have been cold and hungry. Adams also brings into the picture the various other players that have been involved at various points in the MP controversy:  the wife of the former Peruvian president, a secluded amateur scholar who lives in a tent in Alaska, and the reactions of his family and his editors.

An enjoyable read where I also learned a lot – highly recommended.

(Another interesting fact: rapper Tupac Shukar was named after Tupac Amaru II, a Peruvian revolutionary who led an indigenous uprising against Spain. Tupac’s mum and dad were active members of the Black Panther party in NY and obviously had high hopes for their son.)

This is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper (2009)

An enjoyable novel about a family of adult kids and their mother who are all drawn together to sit shiva for their father and husband who has just died. He wasn’t religious at all, but the mother reports that he wanted everyone to be together one more time and so the group agree to this ritual. It’s a Jewish ritual for when someone has died: all the family live together for seven days, mirrors are covered (to encourage focusing on the dead person) and food is provided by others. So, as you could probably surmise, the story involves a lot of threads all being woven together to create a bigger whole.

Thinking this was going to be similar (in a bad way) to Portnoy’s Complaint (something that I was forced to read during grad school and full of whiny characters, meaningless and irrelevant mentions of sex etc.), I was pleasantly surprised when this was actually a very different story. The protagonist is Judd Foxman who is the third of four kids, just separated from his wife who was having an affair with his boss, a shock-jock. At the same time, she is also pregnant with Judd’s child so there is a lot to deal with.

Tropper’s development of the character of each of the siblings was really good – I really felt as though I knew these people in real life by the time I had reached the end of the novel. The dialogue was very believable, the emotions realistic, and the family dynamics true to life.

As mentioned earlier, this story involved lots of different threads being woven together, lots of memories for the siblings bubbling up from childhood with the realistic way that families come together for a short time or an event, and then depart. Living for seven days in one house with my siblings, lovely as they are, would be stressful, and so I thought Tropper’s depiction of a family dealing with the various stresses (enforced time together, the death of the patriarch, newly broken marriages etc.) was really well done.

It seems that Tropper has written quite a few other novels out there, but this one seemed to have the most consistent positive reviews. It was equally realistic and enjoyable, and I enjoyed the story. In fact, I was so stuck in the story that I didn’t even pick up anything else. It seems that I have been so occupied in reading “books that are good for me” (i.e. classics etc.) that it was a nice change to read something that was so fluid to read. I like to challenge myself with the tougher reads, but I must admit that it’s pleasant to “clean the palate” with something light in between.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first story in a long line featuring the English private detective, Sherlock Holmes, along with his friend Dr. Watson, this volume introduces both the characters as they meet for the first time and work on a case (although it’s more that Watson tags along whilst Holmes solves).  Apparently Conan Doyle wrote 46 short stories and four full novels about this duo, and this was the first one to appear.

Since I finished it yesterday, I have been contemplating why the novel was called “A Study in Scarlet”, and then the answer came (via Wiki):  Holmes gives a speech to Watson about his work, and mentions “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it”… Ah-ha!

As usual, this is a murder mystery presented (for the most part) from the POV of Watson who is looking for affordable housing in London upon his return, weak and recovering from illness, after having served the English Army in Afghanistan. The two meet (through a mutual friend) and after making a list of characteristics, they think they will make good flatmates. So off they go to 221B Baker Street.

As always, this is a well written story that truly sucked me in, but the book (unbeknownst to me) consists of two parts and it seemed as though they were two very different stories without any connection. For the first book, we are based in London and some of the southern coast of England, and then the story seems to pause for a bit. Book Two starts and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the reader is in the barren plains of Nebraska with a dying old man and a young girl who have run out of water. The story continues (with no mention whatsoever of London or its environs) when the couple are rescued by the early Mormons traveling west to search for their Promised Land with their slightly nutjob leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Hold on a second. What on earth do the Mormons have to do with a murder mystery in London?

Perplexed but enjoying the story about the Mormons’ travel (helped tremendously by my learning all about Mormons from my trip to Salt Lake City), the US-based story continues. It’s a good one, but holy cow – I was so lost for most of it. What was the link with London? Was this a completely separate story and “Study in Scarlet” was over with some kind of PoMo ending that I didn’t get?

It wasn’t until toward the end of Book Two that it all came together, but really, there was no clue that the two stories were related until then. Sherlock Holmes and Mormons? London and Nebraska? Murder in the City and rebellion in the Mormon camp?  *Completely lost* for a while.

There has been some criticism in how Conan Doyle has presented the Mormons in this story, but when you look at the surrounding history that had just occurred, he really can’t be blamed for taking a negative tack. The Mountain Meadow Massacre had just occurred (1857) within recent memory, and to be honest, the early Mormons were a pretty violent group.

However, once you are filled in and given the rest of the story, it actually all hangs together and makes good sense, but holy guacamole, there is no clue before then. It’s really clever how it all fits together, but it really threw me off at first.

A good mystery story, and one of the first to ever mention using a magnifying glass to help solve a crime. I am not a huge reader of murder mystery type stories, but Sherlock Holmes is an ongoing fav right now.

Consequences – E. M. Delafield (1919)

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A heart-felt book set in later Victorian times with a young girl, Alex Clare, growing up in a somewhat wealthy family with what would seem to be lots of choices for her to make over the years. However, Alex never seems to fit in anywhere – she always seems to be making mistakes and getting into trouble, even when older, and so she learns to see herself as a problem and the Black Sheep of the family.

Her only method of feeling happy was to have vivid close attachments to her friends, all women and none of it reciprocated. Poor Alex. She does her best to win the affections of Queenie in school, but goes a bit overboard and Queenie moves on, not returning the level of friendship. The same thing happens after Alex has turned down a quite suitable engagement (although it was lacking in love) and ends up entering a convent as a nun. Her parents are horrified that she has turned down the engagement as there were not a lot of other offers coming in, but are understanding (but a bit lost) at her decision.  She is also quite clever, but that wasn’t encouraged either, to wit:

“Don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.” (Mother of girl in question.)

As the years go and Alex’s younger siblings grow up and enter society, Alex feels she has been left behind and it’s her fault. Her self esteem is shattered and only by attaching herself in another deeply-felt (but unrequited) friendship with her Superior Nun, can she go on and takes vows for a religious order in Belgium. (This is similar to what Delafield did as well in real life just a few years before this was published…) However, when the Superior Nun leaves for another convent, Alex is lost. (She sounds like she is primed for therapy to me.)

Finally realizing that she was never meant to have taken her lifetime religious vows, Alex requests to be set free (which she is after a long tedious process), but although she is free, she is never allowed to marry anyone. (Note: How can this be? If you are not a nun any more, then wouldn’t you be free to go what you want? How would this get monitored? Was it an honor system? What happened if you did get married? Did monks have the same set up?…)

However, Alex has been in the convent so long now, that all her family have gone on and developed lives without her, thinking as they were thinking that she would remain in the religious convent for the rest of her days. So – when she leaves, everyone is a little confused as to what, exactly, they are to do with her.

 As Father Farrell notes, “A maiden aunt isn’t so very much thought of, in the best of circumstances, let me tell ye”… and that is it in a nutshell. If you are a Victorian era woman and don’t marry, what on earth are you supposed to do? The options just weren’t there for you. Well, they were in some ways but you would have been completely bucking the trend with little support if you did. And imagine the shame of the family name!

This is quite a tough read for me, as it’s painfully obvious how chafing the restrictions of society with regard to gender roles could be. Her younger brother inherits the house and most of the money so he doesn’t really have to worry about anything. Her youngest sister is a Society Deb and a hit in the social circles, and her middle sister is now a widow, poor but not too badly off. With the rules as they were, there was no choice for a middle-aged ex-nun. She had no money saved (since she’d been in the convent for years) so she was completely reliant on other people (mainly her family). She had no marketable skills – her convent years had not set her up for the future as an ex-nun – and she didn’t really have any idea of how the world really worked as her family had provided throughout her childhood and then the convent had acted in a very similar fashion.

Life seems to happen to Alex who drifts along like a branch in a stream. She is very passive about her choices, understandable but no less irritating, and she feels very detached about everything. Her whole life has been handled by someone else (her parents and the nanny, and then the convent) so she is not used to making decisions herself, and feels very childlike in comparison to her siblings, all of whom seemed to have got on ok.  There were times when I really wanted to shake Alex into taking some responsibility for her life… But she was Victorian to the core.

It’s quite interesting to compare this 1919 novel with “The L-Shaped Room” written 40 years later: there were more choices for women, that’s true, but society frowned upon unmarried women then as well, especially pregnant ones. So both Alex and the protagonist of that later novel face a similar lack of options: if you are not married (and especially if you are pregnant and unmarried), where do you fit in? Where do you go? … And even now in the twentieth first century, there are still remnants of this – nothing as bad as it was, but the threads of it remain.

Delafield obviously felt very strongly about feminism, and this is obvious throughout the novel which can be argued to be one of the earlier examples of feminist writing. This was a completely different read from the “Diaries of a Provincial Lady” – this was one of her earlier works and is a much more serious look at the roles of gender in Victorian society.

The ending is sad, but not surprising.