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My Hero: Fanny Trollope

In Recent Articles, Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 3, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Forced by financial hardships to write, Fanny Trollope, who died 150 years ago tomorrow, produced 40 novels and travel books at the rate of two a year. “Let it be as bad as it will, I shall get something for it,” was her attitude. She was a natural. That she could rescue her debt-ridden menage this way was remarkable, but she also managed to voice principles and her instinct was always to defend the underdog.

She was a feminist before the word existed. She wrote one of the first novels in English about American slavery – The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836). In Domestic Manners of the Americans, she railed against the injustice meted out to Native Americans, too: “You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.” Trollope was one of those foreigners not taken in by the American dream: she came, she saw, and she returned to Europe (although for a time she was stuck in Cincinnati).

Trollope loved a spectacle, and was willing to make one of herself, too. For this, she was denounced as unfeminine and lacking in decorum. “Oh! … that ladies would make puddings and mend stockings!” Thackeray moaned after reading one of her books. The novelist Elizabeth Lynn Linton was more indulgent, describing Trollope as “a vulgar, brisk and good-natured kind of well-bred hen wife, fond of a joke and not troubled by squeamishness.”

The woman was undeniably brave, but what I like most about her is her curiosity. She talked to everybody and visited everything: mountains, cottages, waterfalls, schools, prisons, Viennese catacombs stuffed with corpses, and Congress, employing every means of travel then available (donkey, steamboat, raft, carriage). She also had an eye and ear for the telling detail. Americans, she observed, were always spitting and never thanked anybody, and alligators actually ate people.

Her take on autobiographical fiction? “I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognise a pig in a sausage.”



(This article appeared in The Guardian, Oct. 5, 2013

Blizzard 2016. Edinburgh.

In Stuff We Like on January 24, 2016 at 3:58 pm


Discontent and Its Civilizations – Mohsin Hamid

In Free Scotland, Recent Articles, Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 1, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Collections of newspaper columns must be the least enduring or interesting genre of books in the world: the phrase ‘yesterday’s news’ was invented for a reason, after all. Franklin Adams, Richard Harding Davis,  Russell Baker and Geoffrey Bernard read like damp toast now, unless you are obsessed with a particular topic or you’re just weird and you like newspaper writing. This gathering from Mohsin Hamid – there’s hardly a piece of more than a page and a half – is a dip into a drawerful of essays he’s written over the past decade or two, for some of the better newspapers and magazines. They’re so short that they all look the same: a question of some pertinence is raised, discussed at middling depth, and a zinger is appliquéed at the end, in the tiresome way of all journalistic ‘think pieces’. And the title? Ping! Appearance of the dreaded pun-lightbulb.

This collection is blessedly non-chronological: in going through his cogitations, Hamid discovered he had been concerned over the years with a few themes, coming back to them every so often as if on a journalistic roller-coaster: family, life, literature, politics. Politics is where he should stay.  In a good piece, ‘After Sixty Years, Will Pakistan be Reborn?’, Hamid talks about the atmosphere in his family and in Pakistan at the time of its birth: ‘1947 is also remembered as a time of enormous hope. My great-grandfather survived [a bigoted attack]. And the birth that year of his grandson, my father, marked the arrival of the first generation of something new: Pakistanis.

‘My mother recalls a decade of sugar and flour rations. The 1950s, she says, were a decade of a young country finding its feet. She grew up in a small town and she describes a fierce love for Pakistan felt by her and her schoolmates. Pakistan was theirs, a source of pride and identity, symbolically both a parent and, because it inspired such feelings of protectiveness, a sibling.’ Only think. It’s galling and humbling to read this in the light of our recent spectacular failure to secure our own freedom, especially because all we had to do was pick up a pencil.

It’s clear that no one read Discontent and Its Civilizations from start to finish after it was pasted together. Statistics are repeated from one essay to the next, as are certain words, which quickly lose their power to arrest and charm. Much of what Hamid has to say just isn’t very striking. But there is one supremely important essay here and it is called ‘Why Drones Don’t Help’, published last year in the New York Review of Books. Hamid’s thinking seems to have been shaken awake for this piece, even though to some extent it is a book review. It’s a little longer than his usual efforts and he does benefit from a little elbow-room.

It’s a deep, arresting recapitulation of the hows and whys of the execrable, shameful, illegal situation of the drone strikes, perhaps the most awful sustained attack on human beings occurring on this planet. Pakistan is a fantastic playground for conspiracy theorists, he says: ‘Conspiracy theorists have numerous examples they can cite in support of their positions. But perhaps none is as emotionally potent as the claim that flying robots from an alien power regularly strike down from the skies and kill Pakistani citizens. In the US, such a claim would be science fiction or paranoid survivor-cultism of the furthest fringe-dwelling kind. In Pakistan, it is real. And constantly, wrenchingly in the news.’ ‘International pressure can help secure … a consensus,’ writes Hamid. ‘But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.’

So for this piece alone, it turns out that this slapdash book should be read by everyone. But it would have been a much better idea to publish ‘Why Drones Don’t Help’ on its own, in twenty-point type if need be, and put it at the till of every bookshop in the west. Even in Tesco.


This review appeared in the National of 29 December.

Persuasion — Jane Austen

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It is surely the most convincing love story Austen ever wrote, and it’s about a young love, eager, passionate and joyful, which is thwarted by adult ignorance, ill faith and snobbery. Anne loves Wentworth, and Wentworth loves Anne. So it makes pretty good sense that, when the novel opens, eight years later, he has been smarting from Anne’s reluctant rejection of him, and hurt pride has so far stopped him from proposing again. Anne has meanwhile suffered helplessly in silence, alone, ignored, disrespected – seemingly a dutiful maiden aunt but inwardly a dubious one, full of disgust for the society and the individuals that urged her to relinquish him. This is an autumnal novel, full of melancholy. Anne and Wentworth have contemplated this disaster for years, and are stuck in grief and anger.

This situation has been harder for Anne to bear, since she’s had little to distract her from the ruination of her hopes, her looks, her love life, and her prospects. She has remained in the very spot where their love affair was forcibly dismantled, and lives with the same unsympathetic people and, wistfully, amid the same (beloved) scenery. She has naturally spent a lot of her time reading poetry and naval reports (in search of news of Captain Wentworth on his various frigates). But she bears another significant wound too: her mother died when Anne was thirteen. So Anne is really alone in the world, lost, frozen, lovestruck – and inadequately loved or protected by the people around her. The deterioration in her looks is a dangerous development for a young privileged woman in the early 1800s: it seems to doom her to spinsterhood and playing the piano while others dance. Even Wentworth, on his return, dances to music Anne provides. Her lowly position in the family circle, and her initial suffering on Wentworth’s return, are exquisitely painful: ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’

On a walk with the lively group of cousins, Wentworth’s new groupies, Anne recites poetry to herself, but after overhearing Wentworth flirting with Louisa, loses even that comfort: ‘Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by–unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say…“Is not this one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her.’ A low point – and incidentally, she was right about its being the way to Winthrop!

This is what it feels like not to be heard. She can’t or doesn’t bother to participate in most conversations, apart from offering a thoroughly sensible remark or two now and then. She’s never given a chance to speak. Her sister Mary is always yammering on, but everyone else too talks over Anne. No one listens to her at Kellynch Hall either, her supposed ‘home’, an insult that bugs Lady Russell on Anne’s behalf: Lady Russell recognizes that Anne is the most sensible person in the family. She may even have some regrets about blighting Anne’s life by encouraging her to reject Wentworth all those years ago. But Lady Russell is often out of the picture, so Anne doesn’t get to speak to her either.

What keeps happening is that in her powerless position – metaphysically gagged and bound – Anne overhears things. In reaction to all the indifference around her, she becomes more ears than mouth. Much of the novel turns on hearsay, second and third-hand gossip, and eavesdropping (Anne even reads someone else’s mail at one point, though she at first objects to the necessity of doing so). This is the story of a woman so alone it’s an achievement that she continues to exist at all. She lives in a society equally fragile, held together by strands of gossip and misrepresentation. Hearsay and gossip are powerful, if flawed, means of coercion, or ‘persuasion’. It’s also how the powerless communicate (look at Twitter). And the most hurtful, ill-judged remarks are the most quickly (and callously) shared. For instance, Mary blithely relays to Anne Wentworth’s shocked reaction to the change in her appearance: “…he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’”

The harmfulness of ‘persuasion’ is at the heart of the book. Anne’s advisor and mother-substitute Lady Russell was WRONG WRONG WRONG. Yet, eight years on, Anne ‘did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good.’ What the book most lacks is a gratifying confrontation between the two of them on the subject: Anne should really get to tell Lady Russell a thing or two. But by the end, thanks to the intrusive subplot, she has too much to tell Lady Russell (about Mr Elliot’s deceitfulness, as well as her newly independent attitude towards Wentworth), and evades meeting her at all! This is a bit of a cop-out. As a result, the ending’s too peaceful, and too pat.

Like Anne, Persuasion itself suffers from muteness. The wit here is abashed and awkward. What happened? Austen’s eye’s not always on the ball. A few memorable caricatures emerge (too few). The charmless father, Sir Walter, is nicely reprehensible, complaining at every opportunity about how ugly everybody is, especially anyone who’s been at sea (an apt analogy for Anne herself, who has been ‘at sea’ – in her own head – for eight years). He’s like someone lacking in zinc, for whom everything smells like shit. In response to the news that his tenant is an Admiral, he exclaims with customary revulsion: “Then I take it for granted…that his face is as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.” His older daughter Elizabeth is just as cold, but characterless; Austen never does much with her. The truly obnoxious Sir Walter at least earns his keep. Some sprightly fun is poked at him again in Bath, when he notices that the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has arrived: ‘…for the Dalrymples were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was, how to introduce themselves properly.’ That ‘agony’ is genius.

It’s funny too that ‘…the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.’ But the joke is over-played in succeeding pages, releasing a brutality Austen usually saved for letters. She’s needlessly cruel too about Mrs. Musgrove’s plumpness, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to grieve over anything if you’re fat: you’re supposed to be jolly. She could surely have had more fun with Bath instead (a place Austen often energetically scorned). Anne merely dreads going, but has to go, and (suddenly) goes. And there, Cinderella-like, she changes character, becomes more able, more beautiful, more esteemed and less ignored, and more of a free agent too, finally being rewarded by an ecstatic resumption of love. Anne talks more in Bath than she has in the rest of the novel. The chance for Austen to knock the place is completely lost.

Even allowing for the lack of genuine satire, Persuasion is flawed. A very poignant story is marred by almost gothic convolutions of plot that heave themselves unnaturally into being in the last third of the book: all that stuff about the sinister Mr Elliot’s sneaky plans, awkwardly conveyed to us (through hearsay) by the never fully realised semi-invalid, Mrs. Smith. Unusually for Austen, this clumsy subplot verges on the tedious. What she had up until then was a nice tight little novel about loneliness, ostracism, enforced female immobility, and despair. She loses that intensity in favour of a Herculean (and unnecessary) struggle to sort out the good from the bad. But what’s it to US if Mr. Elliot’s a jerk?

Though much interrupted by all this Mrs. Smith malarkey, the delights of Anne’s contact with Wentworth in Bath are well done, those tentative thrilling moves towards reunion and happiness. Anne’s excitement at the concert is almost hysterical; she’s throbbing with hopes and fears. The climax of the Wentworth/Anne romance though, comes, oddly enough, with a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (with Wentworth eavesdropping in the background). Harville movingly complains that Captain Benwick, in proposing to Louisa, has recovered surprisingly fast from the death of his previous fiancee, Harville’s sister Fanny: “Poor Fanny! she should not have forgotten him so soon!… It was not in her nature. She doated on him.” “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,” replies Anne.

Then in a great little discussion along feminist lines, Harville comments mildly, “… I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “…Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … I will not allow books to prove anything.” (Excellent irony, since the world by then contained Austen’s own novels.) The whole Louisa-Lyme Regis-Benwick-Fanny subplot then finally comes together in the once abject, now vibrant, Anne’s best line: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

The unevenness of this novel is in some ways part of its charm. There is an artlessness and honesty here that hint at real pain, and perhaps at something too personal to be easily fictionalised. All the great Austen ingredients are there: she’s got her moral premise up and running (that young love should be allowed to flourish, and life is not only about money); she has a central female character who, though at first silent, meek and almost amorphous, becomes solidified by her own unhappiness and finds her voice; she has hypochondriacs, hypocrisies, absurdities (though not enough of them). That she didn’t manage to sculpt all this into quite the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is (from the git-go, P & P means business), hints that much of the raw emotion here stayed raw – for Austen too – and became curiously (and intriguingly) intractable.


Scotland Small?

In Free Scotland, Stuff We Like on September 20, 2014 at 7:16 am

In the recent referendum, some overly cautious stick-in-the-muds voted against independence because Scotland is ‘too wee’. They’re wrong.


Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner
To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ where in September another
Sitting there and resting and gazing around
Sees not only the heather but blaeberries
With bright green leaves and leaves already turned scarlet,
Hiding ripe blue berries; and amongst the sage-green leaves
Of the bog-myrtle the golden flowers of the tormentil shining;
And on the small bare places, where the little Blackface sheep
Found grazing, milkworts blue as summer skies;
And down in neglected peat-hags, not worked
Within living memory, sphagnum moss in pastel shades
Of yellow, green, and pink; sundew and butterwort
Waiting with wide-open sticky leaves for their tiny winged prey;
And nodding harebells vying in their colour
With the blue butterflies that poise themselves delicately upon them;
And stunted rowans with harsh dry leaves of glorious colour.
‘Nothing but heather!’  ̶  How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete!

-Hugh MacDiarmid