I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click here for a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.
Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.
The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.
“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”
I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”
And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.
“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”
Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.
Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth.
The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.
“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”
“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”
Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.
“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”
Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.
Those were the “good old days.”
What difference did reliable birth control make?
“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”
Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.
But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my hero. And if you’ve seen me in the last week or so, I’ve probably mentioned Notorious RBG as an enlightening, inspiring, and very readable book. The authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, made it a pleasure getting to know this intelligent, forthright, hardworking woman who has fought against stereotype and injustice for her entire career.
Young Ruth had doors slammed in her face. Repeatedly. She was once fired for being pregnant. While at Harvard Law School as a young wife and mother, she and the other female students had to repeatedly justify the slots that they’d “taken away” from males. Furthermore, there were “small” slights such as no women’s restrooms in the building and not being allowed into the library’s reading room. Nevertheless, she persisted.
After Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, she graduated tied for first in her class. Still, no firm would hire her. Again, she would be taking a job from a male who had a family to support. When she finally did get a job lecturing at Rutgers, she was paid less because she was a woman. Still, she persisted.
While working with the ACLU, she won five out of six women’s rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court. Furthermore, she devised a careful, incremental plan for revolutionary goals, fighting against laws that were inherently gender-biased. Some of her earliest cases defended men against unfair regulations that didn’t acknowledge they too could be primary caregivers of their children or parents. Or the pregnant woman in the military forced to choose between an abortion or a discharge, neither of which she wanted. Or the woman who wasn’t allowed to add her children to her employer-based health insurance because it was assumed only men had dependents. You see, fairness works both ways.
“I think gender discrimination is bad for everyone, it’s bad for men, it’s bad for children. Having the opportunity to be part of that change is tremendously satisfying. Think of how the Constitution begins. ‘We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.’ But we’re still striving for that more perfect union. And one of the perfections is for the ‘we the people’ to include and ever enlarged group.”
“’We the people’” originally left out a lot of people. “’It would not include me,” RBG said, or enslaved people, or Native Americans.’”
Ginsburg established case-law that could then be cited as precedent in future cases.
Learning about Ginsburg’s early fights and her resolve to continue fighting, reminds us that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Justice Ginsburg. We could do worse that to emulate her example.
RBG advises women to act like ladies:
“That meant to always conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way…Hold fast to your convictions and your self-respect, be a good teacher, but don’t snap back in anger. Anger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.”
Further advice from the book’s Appendix:
How to Be Like RBG
- Work for what you believe in, but pick your battles and don’t burn your bridges.
- Don’t be afraid to take charge.
- Think about what you want, then do the work, but then enjoy what makes you happy.
- Bring along your crew.
- Have a sense of humor.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now firmly fixed in my pantheon of cultural heroes. And it’s never too early to learn about this fabulous woman. A Young Readers’ version of this book is now available and I recently purchased one of several picture books about Justice Ginsburg for my granddaughter’s eighth birthday. I hope my Olivia will stand up against injustice when she sees it.
Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Due in no small part the Notorious (not to mention Supreme) RBG.
The Little French Bistro begins with sixty-year-old German tourist, Marianne trying to end her life. She’s been belittled by her insensitive, bullying, and unappreciative husband, Lothar for over forty years. During that time, he’s repeatedly told her she’s weak, silly, and stupid. Worse, she’s believed him. She sees no way out other than to drown herself in the Seine.
While she is rescued, Lothar’s response is less than sympathetic. Marianne escapes, but on her way out of the hospital, she is intrigued by and steals a hand-painted tile of a scene at Kerdruc. That tile leads her to the village on the Brittany Coast where she intends to make good on her intention to end her life. Instead, she rediscovers herself. I guess this could be described as a “coming of age” story, except that Marianne comes of age a bit late.
Some womanly wisdom from author, Nina George.
“Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It’s time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside. The goddess hates to see abilities go to waste, and women waste their abilities far too often.”
“’People never change!” Marianne retorted. ‘We forget ourselves, and when we rediscover ourselves, we merely imagine that we have changed. That’s not true, though. You can’t change dreams; you can only kill them—and some of us are very good murderers.’”
On the risks of compliance and defiance:
“How many deviations, side roads and senseless detours a woman can take before she finds her own path, and all because she falls into line too early, takes too early the paths of custom and convention, defended by doddering old men and their henchwomen—the mothers who only want the most dutiful outcome for their daughters. And then she wastes an immense amount of time ensuring that she fits the mold! How little time than remains to correct her fate.”
“Life wasn’t too short: it was too long to waste unduly on non-love, non-laughter and non-decisions. And it began when you first took a risk, failed and realized that you’d survived the failure. With that knowledge, you could risk anything.” “…life as an autonomous woman is not a song. It’s a scream, a war; it’s a daily struggle against the easy option of obeying.”
“Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.”
“She hoped intensely that the generations of women to come would manage better than she had, having been brought up by mothers who didn’t equate love with abnegation.”
On the power of love:
“…maybe friendship was the most patient form of love.”
“Giving and seeing how a person flourishes and feeds off your love: the amount of power you possess, and the fact that that power makes someone the best they can be.”
I love the themes that it’s never to late to follow your heart and how important it is to show people who you really are, to live an authentic life. As I age, I find these tales of late-in-life transformation quite charming, not to mention hopeful.
While I had read and loved, this author’s Little Paris Bookshop, I had trouble following and getting invested in this book early on. With an entire village full of characters to keep track of, it was hard to know who to care about. Moreover, the omniscient narrator kept changing the point of view which made it challenging for me until I realized what was going on. Nevertheless, this was a Book Club choice, so I stuck with it and was rewarded. I also learned a bit about the Brittany Coast and the Breton culture I knew nothing of. Recommend.
The Summer Before the War has been on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.
Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.
We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.
I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.