Monday, 27 June 2022

Guest feature by Mark Davies: the best books about Lewis Carroll


"My appreciation of Carroll's versatility as a mathematician, photographer, inventor, diarist and letter writer has grown steadily over the years."

Mark Davies
is an
 Oxford local historian, and the only Oxford guide endorsed by the Lewis Carroll Society. He has helped shape Oxford’s annual Alice’s Day since the first one in 2007, and has participated in French, Dutch, Canadian, Brazilian and British TV and radio documentaries, most notably for BBC 2 and BBC Radio 4. His interest is mainly the many Oxford realities which are hidden away within the apparent fantasy of the ‘Alice’ books, an angle which has enabled him to lecture on this internationally famous topic as far away as Assam in India. "Subsequently, my appreciation of Carroll’s versatility as a mathematician, photographer, inventor, diarist, and letter writer has grown steadily over the years. My fascination with Carroll was initially raised not on account of his books but because of the importance to him and his story-telling of the River Thames, Oxford's waterways having been my original (and continuing) main local history interest. It is because of its diverse watery associations that I became intrigued by Oxford Castle, and republished my book Stories of Oxford Castle in 2017. My biography of the Oxford pastry cook James Sadler, the first Englishman to fly, embraces quite a different element, however!"

After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold: a teasingly insightful glimpse of the Victorian Oxford of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the two protagonists – and yet they aren’t! Yes, there is an Oxford University don with a penchant for photography, and yes his favourite subject is a ten-year-old local girl, and yes the text is scattered with subtle Wonderland and Looking-Glass references, but this is otherwise a quite different, very cleverly contrived, story. Structured as the inner thoughts of the main characters, After Such Kindness engagingly explores the dilemmas posed by the unusual friendship between a mature clergyman bachelor – Arnold convincingly captures Carroll’s playful sense of humour – and an inquisitive and trusting young girl, while sustaining a lurking sense of foreboding through to a thought-provoking finale.

The Looking Glass House
by Vanessa Tait: this fictional interpretation of the creation of Alice’s Adventures is seen from the viewpoint of a constant, yet largely unremarked, fixture during these critical years: the Liddell family governess, Mary Prickett. The Oxford context of the time is convincingly depicted, and some of the burning issues of the day – Darwinism and Nonconformism, for instance – are interwoven with the more immediate tensions within the Liddell household, interpreted by an author who has more right than anyone to comment because Tait is the great-granddaughter of the real Alice herself. To sustain the pace she condenses the real events of 1857 to 1863 into a single fictionalised year, drawing on many well-known facts and suppositions – including Carroll’s rumoured amorous interest in Miss Prickett – and some lesser known details from her own family’s archives.

Lewis Carroll's England
by Charlie Lovett: although this guide to the many English towns and cities associated with Charles Dodgson, the author of Alice, is now more than 20 years old, it remains the most accessible and comprehensive Carrollian guide for the literary tourist. Lovett, a former President of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, provides admirably clear directions accompanied by over 200 illustrations and photographs, many coming from his own extensive collection. To quote from the cover text, Lovett takes the reader ‘from the tiny Cheshire village of Dodgson’s birth to the Surrey hillside that provides his final resting place … on a journey through Victorian Britain like no other’. True enough, and in between come locations in, most importantly, Yorkshire, Rugby, Oxford, London, the Isle of Wight, and Eastbourne.

Lewis Carroll's Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson 
by Lewis Carroll: actually, it is ten books, covering 1855 to 1897 (with a reconstruction of the missing journals of April 1858 to May 1862 – their disappearance being the cause of countless conspiracy theories!). These diaries are the principal source of practically every piece of Lewis Carroll/Alice analysis that has ever been published, and provide a uniquely revealing chronology of the genesis of one of the world’s classic works of literature. These volumes mean that the enigmatic genius of Lewis Carroll is not the sole preserve of academics or historians; through them, he becomes accessible to us all. Transcribed and fully indexed by Edward Wakeling, a renowned world expert, whose extraordinarily detailed and insightful bibliographical and contextual notes provide an unparalleled insight into Victorian Oxford (London, Surrey, Yorkshire, Sussex, and more).

Some of these volumes are hard to get, but there are some remaining copies at the Lewis Carroll Society if interested.

Lewis Carroll: Photographer
by Helmut Gernsheim: mention the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ and most people will immediately think of the two Alice books. Very few would equate the name to Charles Dodgson, the photographer. This, however, is the aspect of the multi-talented Oxford don which Gernsheim, a professional photographer himself, appraised in his 1949 first edition for the very first time, concluding that Dodgson was ‘the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century. Many of the black and white plates substantiate this claim, but equally, Dodgson’s mastery of this new invention enabled him to meet and photograph (sometimes uniquely) numerous famous writers and artists, as well as many Oxford contemporaries. As an aside, Edward Wakeling’s 2015 Catalogue Raisonné is a comprehensive listing of every one of Dodgson’s hundreds of known photographs.


Mark Davies' Stories of Oxford Castle is published by Oxford Towpath Press


Mark Davies' Alice in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford is published by Signal Books



Monday, 20 June 2022

Guest review by Graeme Fife: AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFĒ - FREEDOM, BEING & APRICOT COCKTAILS by Sarah Bakewell

 


"Bakewell has sailed what might have been tempestuous waters with assurance, understanding, sympathy and love."

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday.

Philosophy…brilliant minds describing society as it could, should be? The crux is language. Imannuel Kant speaks of Ding an sich which we may translate ‘the thing itself’. Fine, but what is thing in this or any application? From universal thing we move to the mystery of being … the essence of humankind? The core, impression, elusive oneness of One? Philosophy can be a trial and I’ve always found it baffling, often beautiful in many respects, but a cerebration too far in most. I therefore came to Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, captivated by her wonderful study of Montaigne in How to Live, more drawn by cocktails and the company of the people drinking them in the Paris café – de Beauvoir, Sartre and their friend Aron – than by the inevitable task of coping with more rarefied talk of disquisition and the quests and riddles, byways and shadowy alleys down which ‘love of wisdom’ may lead, numb-headed as this must seem, be. How foolish. All this before I’d read a page? There’s so much more.

The context of the book, beyond the intellectual thinking and talking shop of the Latin Quarter cafés in Paris, animates its narrative. Between the two wars, all Europe was in turmoil. About Germany we know, too well; in Britain, too, the faltering of all that had been certain and the shocking prospect of uncertainty: foundations of the old order rocked, ancient empires blown away. No system of thought was safe from question, now. France, a nation deeply divided on many fault lines for a long time, saw a brief ascendancy of the Left: socialism and communism offered, apparently, an answer to, through challenge of, the domination of the Establishment namely accepted wisdom, rooted tradition, all that was sure, innate, even benevolent before that very Establishment oversaw the horrors, the devastation of land and wholesale slaughter, 1914-18.

Bakewell is particularly astute in exploring the climate of Occupied France and the moral dilemmas it threw up: Patriotic or Personal? Nation or Friend? Protest – violent or non-violent? Discuss. Thought of itself can be arid and off-putting. What counts equally is the heart of the story not its clothes and jewellery.

To Paris came news of phenomenology, a philosophical approach to knowledge and understanding which originated with Husserl in Germany, a country whence so many of the modern thinkers had come. I attempt no definitions here. Bakewell’s learning and clarity deserve better than any amateurish upstaging. That said, from the intense deliberations of the threesome in a café over its famous apricot cocktails came the enunciation of a way of thinking about human affairs christened existentialism…ah, existence. How, in this new cosmos when all seemingly permanent structures had been near shattered, even obliterated, to consider humanity’s place and purpose? Perhaps by looking, just that, looking at what’s there still, a kind of permanence. Greek phenomenon means 'that which appears, is visible’. Simple? Far from it and Bakewell is a wonderful guide. Her clarity – and passion – for and about the subject informs a story which could so easily threaten to overwhelm.

She investigates a process of thought about the entanglements of morality imposed by new order which had eroded certitude to a degree unimaginable hitherto. More than a starting anew, a need to address a wholly different problem. ‘A future humanity living in isolated pods beneath the Earth’s surface’ as E M Forster imagined in a short story? Huxley’s Brave New World? As Bakewell writes of commentators on this disintegration: ‘They set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism or any other of the -isms and disciplines that explain our lives away.’ Add, for example, that the French Revolution foundered, in large part, because the small-minded bigots at its heart, the drivers of its bloody excesses, believed, that virtue or, in their word, civisme, being a good egg in Whitehall parlance, could be inculcated by law and edict.

From that age of Fascism, a violent curse out of the perverted sense of rectitude imparted by a weighted fist, Bakewell cites Paul Ricoeur, a pioneer of the new thinking: ‘The relentless persecution of this man (a Czech activist) proves that, in the event of a people’s extreme abjection, philosophical pleading for subjectivity is becoming the citizen’s only recourse against the tyrant.’ Subjectivity? Feeling. Humanity.

Bakewell has sailed what might have been tempestuous waters with assurance, understanding, sympathy and love. It’s a story that needed to be told on issues which demand consideration.

At the Existentialist Café is published by Other Press (NY).


Read this Q & A with Graeme about his novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin







Monday, 13 June 2022

Guest review by Jon Appleton: THESE PRECIOUS DAYS and THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE by Ann Patchett

 


"These essays are rendered so sharp and original that they feel as exotic as the settings in Patchett’s novels such Bel Canto or State of Wonder."


Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

If ever I see a plea for recommendations of books about how to be a writer, I raise my hand immediately and offer The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett. It provides everything: technique, advice, encouragement, wisdom. It makes a writing life seem possible, even practical. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s just one essay in a collection full of treasure.

‘The tricky thing about being a writer,’ says Ann Patchett in the introduction, ‘or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.’

With this entirely reasonable attitude, Patchett never dreamed her journalism – usually written to a word count and deadline on a topic of an editor’s choosing – would last the distance. In fact, she had to be persuaded that they deserved to be published in a collection.

Patchett’s more recent collection, These Precious Days, came into existence in a totally different way. She was writing a book – not a novel, which didn’t feel right in the long months of the pandemic, but a book nonetheless. The title essay has become one of the most widely syndicated pieces in modern times. Friends emailed it to friends who’d already received it and still sent it on. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship that developed between Patchett, her husband Karl and their unexpected long-term house guest Sooki, who had flown to Nashville for a clinical trial to treat her cancer, and, like everyone else who happened to be in Nashville, or anywhere for that matter, got stuck.

Patchett knew she had to tell the story of the friendship, and intended it to be a private affair. (She’d learned in her career that you don’t have to share everything you write.) But Sooki’s family and friends saw too much of the friend they feared losing in Patchett’s words for the essay itself to be lost. Patchett agreed and wanted a sturdy, enduring fortress to protect it. So she wrote other essays, just as she’d always done, on the things that mattered to her, the things she saw. Everyday life and people.

Domestic in their origins they may be – although ‘My Year of No Shopping’ and ‘How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice’, for instance, are anything but – to us these essays are rendered so sharp and original that they feel as exotic as the settings in Patchett’s novels such Bel Canto or State of Wonder. I’ve enthused on this site about her most recent novels, Commonwealth and The Dutch House. If you think I love Ann Patchett’s novels – and I do – then you should know that I am obsessed with her essays. I reread them all the time, laughing a lot (they are so funny), learning something new each time. Often it’s about writing or publishing – she’s seen the rough and the smooth – but often it’s about how to live.

This life now, she seems to be saying in These Precious Days, is all we have and needs to be celebrated. Whether or not you hold that view you will relish being in the moment for every page of both these wonderful, nourishing books. 

These Precious Days and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage are published by Bloomsbury.

See also Jon's reviews of Commonwealth and The Dutch House.



Monday, 6 June 2022

Guest review by Anne Sebba: EPIC ANNETTE - A HEROINE'S TALE by Anne Weber, translated by Tess Lewis




"Annette Beaumanoir is a rare heroine whose fierce courage almost demands an unusual, and beautiful, account of her life."

Anne Sebba
is a biographer whose most recent book is Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy. She has written eleven books, including That Woman: a life of Wallis Simpson and Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s.

Reading about a woman who displays extraordinary courage in her life, not once but repeatedly, forces one to question ‘what would I have done.’ How many of us can put our beliefs before our family? Annette Beaumanoir did just that - first resisting a foreign occupier and then fighting for Algerian Independence against her own county – and her story feels deeply resonant in 2022. Annette’s courage as a teenage resister to the Nazi occupation of France in 1940’s is spectacular enough but going to prison for justice in Algeria when it involved not only opposing her own country but leaving her children requires a quite different brand of courage and determination.

In 1944, not yet twenty and a Communist resister, she rescued two Jewish children, strangers, and took them to safety with her parents in rural Brittany. The pair survived the war and in 1996 Annette and her parents were recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Gentiles.

Then in 1959, having left the Communist party three years earlier, married to a doctor, a mother of two children and living a comfortable life as a respected neurophysiologist in Marseilles, Annette resisted again. This time against France, her own country, and in support of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). She was found guilty of terrorist subversion and sentenced to ten years in prison by a military tribunal. But, because she was pregnant with a third child, she was kept under house arrest and, thanks to an elaborate escape arranged by her husband and friends which involved a dramatic flight in a car boot, was spirited away to exile in Algeria. But after a coup in that country, she again had to flee and eventually settled in Switzerland where she worked as Director of the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology in Geneva hospital.

It has taken decades for the bravery of women such as Annette to be recognised. Some years ago, when I was researching a book about women in wartime Paris, I was constantly struck by the number of those who had performed courageous acts: yet, as a group, women had the reputation of collaborating with the enemy. Now her story has been told in an unusual way by Anne Weber, who writes in blank verse in French and German, and the book was awarded the 2020 German Book Prize. Annette died earlier this year aged 98, just weeks before its publication in the UK.

I had not realised how powerful blank verse could be in telling such a story, perhaps because in a poem every word has to earn its place. I marked several phrases where this seemed especially forceful such as the ‘yellow star which gleams like a golden target on the lapel.’ But also Weber is dealing with a panoramic sweep of history which suits such technique beautifully. An epic poem for an epic fighter.

Annette Beaumanoir is a rare heroine whose fierce courage almost demands an unusual, and beautiful, account of her life. She stood out in life and this epic will ensure that she is honoured in death.

Epic Annette - a Heroine's Tale is published by Indigo Press.

See also Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger's Life, reviewed by Graeme Fife.



Monday, 30 May 2022

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt, reviewed by Linda Newbery

 


"Donna Tartt is a simply wonderful writer: I was captivated by her descriptions of art, the deft characterisations of even the most minor characters, the setting of scene, the insights and honesty."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Best known for fiction for children and young adults, with titles including the Costa Category winner Set in Stone, she has also published one novel for adults, Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon, and is currently working on another. Her latest title, This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us, is a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults.

I didn't rush to read The Goldfinch, having given up on Donna Tartt's The Little Friend after reading about a third. Although that's something I rarely do, I was finding it a chore rather than a pleasure; hence my delay in reading this. Now, though, nine years after publication, I've completed it and am full of admiration.

My reading was hybrid: part reading, part listening to the audio version (wonderfully read by David Pittu). At more than 770 pages it's a brick of a book, too heavy to carry on buses and trains, and this tactic made the length seem less daunting, though before long I was absorbed and by the end felt the sense of loss at finishing that great books can leave you with, and a need to return to several episodes for a second reading.  

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker survives an explosion that kills his mother and dominates his life from then on. Minutes before the catastrophe, the pair had been admiring The Goldfinch, a painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, in a New York gallery. In the confusion that follows, the boy tries to help a dying man and a strange, intense bond is formed between them, one that will dictate the course of the adult Theo's life. This elderly man, Welty, a furniture restorer, asks of Theo two things: to take the goldfinch painting, and to go to his shop with a warning for his colleague. Welty's charge, a girl a little younger than Theo, is also badly injured in the explosion, and the two will form a close attachment.

The painting's totemic significance stays with us to the end, prompting meditations on the meaning of art, the power of communication, and the sense of loss. Fabritius was himself killed in a gunpowder explosion at the age of 32, and The Goldfinch (Het puttertje in Dutch) may have been in his workshop at the time. It's a small trompe l'oeil painting showing a beautiful but pitiable finch chained by one leg to a wall-mounted box: kept as a pet or ornament, suffering, unable to escape. That Fabritius painted it in the year of his death adds poignancy. In real life it's safely in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, but in Tartt's novel the painting is taken by Theo who for various reasons keeps it, the secrecy weighing heavy on him: "How had I ever thought I would keep it hidden? I'd meant to deal with the painting for years, get it back where it belonged, and yet somehow I had kept on and on finding reasons not to. To think of it wrapped and sealed uptown make me feel self-erased, blanked-out, as if burying it away had only increased its power and given it a more vital and terrible form. Somehow, even shrouded and entombed in the storage locker, it had worked itself free and into some fraudulent public narrative, a radiance that glowed in the mind of the world."

Theo's father having deserted the family, Theo is for a while looked after by the wealthy parents of a school acquaintance, later being claimed when his father reappears and takes him to a haphazard life in Las Vegas. Here he meets Boris, a Ukrainian boy used to fending for himself, until circumstances force a return to New York. Home and employment are provided by the kindly, self-contained James Hobart (Hobie), Welty's business partner, who introduces Theo to the techniques of furniture restoration. The love with which Hobie practises his craft is touching: "Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea-stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different, and time didn't actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded back-water ... In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a chisel, and his happy absorption floated up from the workshop and diffused through the house with the warmth of a wood-burning stove in winter ... " We sense that lasting security, and mutual love with Pippa, the damaged girl, could be Theo's future, were it not for his involvement in dubious sale deals and the re-emergence of Boris with a revelation that leads him into serious crime. 

It's partly a coming-of-age story, partly a crime thriller, and I admit that the convolutions of the latter plot lost me somewhat; I'd struggle to explain in detail who was who and exactly what happened. But, beyond being concerned for the fate of Theo and the painting, this wasn't what interested me most. Donna Tartt is a simply wonderful writer: I was captivated by her descriptions of art, the deft characterisations of even the most minor characters, the setting of scene, the insights and honesty, in this narrative supposedly written by Theo himself. I marked several passages that particularly struck me, but really could have noted something on almost every page - an indication of a brilliant novel. Surely if I return now to The Little Friend I'll find the same qualities there.

The Goldfinch is published by Little, Brown




Monday, 23 May 2022

THE YOUNG PRETENDER by Michael Arditti, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"Sparkling with wit and shot through with sadness: a winning combination." 

(Before I begin , I'd like to thank Michael Arditti for sharing these pictures with me. I'm afraid that, probably owing to my own technological incompetence, I was unable to upload all of them straight to this blog, so I photographed some of Michael's images with my phone and what you are seeing is a photo of a photo. Apologies for this....to readers and to Michael, who was very helpful. The cartoon reproduced below is one of many contemporary cartoons, but Michael owns a copy of the one shown here. I hope that the layers of unreality might add to the theatrical tone of this piece. )

The Young Pretender: the dramatic return of Master Betty was published on April 28th, and has had a very good critical reception. All the reviews I've seen have been enthusiastic. This review was originally published on the History Girls blog but I'm posting it again here for Writers Review readers.

Michael Arditti has an interesting and varied backlist. I've reviewed another of his books on this blog. It's called Widows and Orphans and it's wonderful. It is also as different from The Young Pretender as you can imagine. It's the story of a man trying to rescue his local paper from being taken over and is also a novel about domestic dilemmas and personal lives. Arditti has also written two Biblical epics (Of Men and Angels and The Anointed) and I have read both. They're enormously erudite and very long so I recommend reading them on a Kindle, but I do recommend them. Michael Arditti is a brilliant writer. He is also a critic and is clearly enthralled by both the reality and the illusion of the theatre.

In the Acknowledgements, Arditti says: 'In writing The Young Pretender I have adhered to what is known of Betty's life, while freely filling in the extensive gaps.'

The method he's adopted to write about Master Betty is to adopt his voice. Indeed, he may be said to have become Betty, because every word seems so genuine, so heartfelt and so accurate that it's easy to imagine that this is a memoir by the actor. As a child star he was also known as The Young Roscius. He played Hamlet (and many other rôles) at a very young age and then fell out of favour. In 1806, Master Betty (now to be called Mister Betty, as he has to tell everyone he meets) returns to Bath, six years after his last starry appearance. "I am six years older now, ten inches taller.....Should my name spark a recollection,; my figure swiftly dispels it..."





We learn along the way about Betty's family, and his rise to fame. We see details of the huge acclaim that greeted his every appearance. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, came to see him perform and Betty was the toast of the town in every way. I make a point of providing no spoilers so I won't say more about the plot, but there is one, even in a book as short as this and which is so carefully based on the historical record.




Arditti's huge achievement is tuning in to the authentic voice of his protagonist, narrator and star. I am completely convinced that this is exactly how Betty spoke and how he would write. In the days when I used to visit schools, I sometimes told the children that writing novels was like having a huge dressing-up box at my disposal and that I was allowed to put on the costumes and pretend to be whatever I felt like being: a fat black cat or a retired ballerina or....anyone at all. Arditti has clearly enjoyed inhabiting the 18th century and he is fluent in its language and preoccupations.

It's also instructive to read about how our forefathers dealt with the matter of celebrity in the days long before Twitter and the rest of the social media we have to grapple with. Trolling, and cancelling and gaslighting etc have been part of our lives for a long time. Britney Spears would recognise much that befalls Betty and the way that audiences can consume their idols happens today as it did then. The young are vulnerable. Control is always there: eat this, don't eat that, see this person, don't see that person....some of the ways in which Betty was treated recall what we know of the childhood of Frances Gumm, who became Judy Garland. If you're a vessel for the dreams of many people, it's hard to be yourself.

Another thing I found interesting was the level of detail about the actual running of the theatres in the Georgian period. Actors had 'circuits'. Actor managers were the ones who arranged tours. Rehearsals were often negotiable. You met the other actors at the first rehearsal. Stage business was fixed on before you began: where you'd stand and how you'd move once on the stage and so forth. Then the words came in later. I learned, for example that at this time, what I used to call 'flats' when I was on the stage were called 'flat -scenes': literally flat pieces of wood and canvas which were pushed into place to depict the background. I enjoyed seeing what hasn't changed since those days as well as what has.

I hope very much that readers of this blog will try this most unusual short novel. It's both sparkling with wit and shot through with sadness: a winning combination.




The Young Pretender is published by Arcadia Books.

Monday, 16 May 2022

ROSE DORAN DREAMS by Berlie Doherty.....a Q&A session hosted by Adèle Geras





"I decided to rename it because Rose Doran had changed, or my understanding of her had changed."

Berlie Doherty
writes novels, plays, stories, poetry and opera libretti and is translated into over twenty languages. She has written over 60 books,, mostly for children and young adults, Several of her novels have been dramatised for radio, television and the stage. She has won many awards including the Carnegie Medal twice (Dear Nobody and Granny was a Buffer Girl), and the Writers’ Guild award twice (Dear Nobody and Daughter of the Sea), received a Boston Globe-Horn Honor, and was nominated for the Astrid Lindgren award. For adults she has written many radio plays and short stories, and one other novel for adults, requiem.

The Vinegar Jar was first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1994. Berlie has now reissued it, transformed into Rose Doran Dreams. Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and I sent Berlie some questions after we'd all read her book....here they are, followed by a short review by me. Find out more from her website. 
 
Celia:  Did you feel tempted to update the novel in any way?

Berlie: No, I wanted to keep it in the period of late wartime – post war childhood.

Celia: What did you feel happy about from the original novel?

Berlie: All the ’stories’, traditional and invented. I hardly changed a word of any of those, though I did sometimes change the order to point up what was going on in Rose’s real world.

Celia: Was there anything you were itching to change?

Berlie: Gordon’s perception of Rose. I wanted to explain his sexual coldness towards her. I wanted to build up the sense that he adored her but couldn’t touch her. I found Gordon a very interesting character to develop.

And I wanted to change the ending. Interestingly, I wrote different endings for the English edition and the American edition of The Vinegar Jar - and I still wasn’t happy!

Linda: How did it feel to go back to your early work with a view to reshaping it? What made you decide to revise (and rename) rather than simply reissuing the book?

Berlie: It was a strange thing to do. I’ve never read one of my own books from beginning to end before, after the editing process. It’s so long since I wrote The Vinegar Jar that it really felt as if somebody else had written it. I was very sad when Hamish Hamilton took it out of print. It became an e-book, no cover, no publicity, and lay there like a lump of dead wood that was ready to become kindling. I’ve just thought of that and it’s quite a nice pun! Anyway, I decided to revisit it for something to do in lockdown. I felt quite a lot of it, especially in the first half, was underwritten and needed enhancing both in style and in content. Even down to the use of punctuation, it was as basic as that. A friend told me she had no idea what was going on, so I knew I had to put that right. It was a challenge.

When I re-read it I felt I liked the book but that it could be a lot better. Revising it became a major project, I loved doing it, and it really absorbed me.

I decided to rename it because Rose Doran had changed, or my understanding of her had changed. In The Vinegar Jar her stories and imaginings trap her and almost stifle her. She’s looking out on the world that she can’t escape into. In Rose Doran Dreams her stories and imaginings give her freedom and emotional release. Her imagination powers her.

Linda: I like the way you let us fully understand how Rose's longings and frustrations lead to her fantasy with Paedric, but also you allow us to see how strange her behaviour seems to Gordon and Edmund. Was this difficult to pull off?

Berlie: This was one of the things I hadn’t achieved in The Vinegar Jar. Things just happen and aren’t explained. As soon as I thought about Rose Doran being in some sort of psychological breakdown I began to understand her and could find ways of justifying her psychic relationship with Paedric. Also I was able to ask myself questions about her relationship with Gordon and Edmund, the effect on them of her alienation, and their helplessness in trying to make sense of it.

Linda: I felt that Rose was often unkind to Edmund, yet he remains devoted to her and apparently endlessly patient, despite the limitations to his own life. What do you see as his future (if you do?)

Berlie: In The Vinegar Jar he mentions a girlfriend, but the reader hears little about her, as if perhaps he’s just making her up for Rose’s benefit. But in Rose Doran Dreams she’s really there, and we meet her. Like Rose, I would want his future to be with Molly.

Adèle: Rose Doran Dreams moves from being an almost D H Lawrence-like realist story, to containing elements of fairytale and fantasy. How do you think each “strand of thought” (if I can call it that!) enhanced the other?

Berlie: I don’t think one would have worked completely without the other. Rose’s imagination is a kind of psychosis, and I hope she shocks the reader as much as she shocks Gordon with her erotic story of the shivering mountain. It’s as if she can’t help it, and she slips from reality into fantasy without being aware of it or of its effect on others. But as for the realism, although she was a child who loves stories (and who doesn’t!) I needed to show her as being rooted in earth, and not just a dreamy child with her head in the clouds.

Adèle: Some of the ‘realist’ story had such a strong feeling of being true that I wondered whether there was any autobiography in the mix. Can you tell us?

Berlie: Not to my knowledge!

Adèle: I thought parts of the novel were Angela Carteresque. Is she an influence on your work? Can you name other writers who might have had an effect on this book?

Berlie: I can’t actually, though I’m very honoured that you’ve made that connection. The fact is that I love fairy stories, and yes, magic realism, though I didn’t know that term when I wrote TVJ. I do love Angela Carter/Isabel Allende/ Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie/Joanne Harris …

But also D H Lawrence (that reference interested me, Adele! Barry Hines/Arthur Miller/ Shelagh Delaney … It’s strange isn’t it, you don’t know when you’re writing something how much, or if at all, you’re affected by your reading.

Adèle: Can you see RDD as a film or play? If so, where would you film it?

Berlie: Yes, a film. It is visual. Or a radio play, for the same reason. And if a film, Edale (where I live). It’s not Edale, many of the geographic features don’t apply to Edale but the railway runs through it (and is an important character in the book) and the caverns and hills of Castleton (the Mam Tor story) lie just beyond it.

Short review:

Berlie is an enormously prolific and successful writer whose prose has two distinct qualities which are blended together perfectly in this latest book. On the one hand, she's a sharp, clear realist writer, bringing historical periods to life in a plain and direct way that speaks straight to the reader. Then there's the lyrical, poetic style which comes to the fore quite often in Rose Doran Dreams. The fairy tale atmosphere of this novel provides an excellent background for what are literally flights of fancy. The writer Angela Carter would have enjoyed reading this book.

Anyone who's read reviews by me knows that I don't like giving away the plot of a novel, and in this case the narrative moves through different iterations of love, and obsession. It centres on children, and our eponymous heroine experiences young love, then an unusual marriage and then a relationship which stretches her emotions (and those of the reader) to the limit. You will end up in a glorious tangle of true and imagined and it's part of the pleasure of the story that you'll be going over it in your head long after you've finished reading it, sorting out what you think has happened or is happening. It's a very visual book...I think it would make a terrific movie.