Category Archives: Title-F

Review: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

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I really enjoyed this book.  Within a few pages it created a sense of anticipation about the direction of three young lives, which I looked forward to resolving as I read.

It begins with a scene in a graveyard in the late summer of 1946 where three young women — Hester ‘Hetty’ Fallowes, Lieselotte Klein and Una Vane – have gathered following the news that morning that each of them has been awarded a state scholarship, an important award because it finances their place at university, which they can now take up.

Hetty is to read Literature at London, Una is off to Cambridge to read Physics and Lieselotte is to Cambridge as well to read Modern Languages.  As the girls lounge among the gravestones, their feet on a tomb, Gardam gradually introduces us to their lives.

We learn that Hetty’s father is a former intellectual, ruined by the effects of World War 1 and not suitable for much besides gravedigging; her mother is an anxious individual, constrained by her husband’s lack of ambition, and one of those characters that sets the restrictive moral tenor for the small town in which they all live.  Una’s father was a doctor who committed suicide when Una was young so Una’s mother tries to make ends meet running a hair salon.  Lieselotte is a Jew from Hamburg, who arrived in England in 1939 ‘on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport’, and as a consequence has no parents.  She has lived with a childless Quaker couple for six years after losing her papers that would have seen her united with a relative.

The book follows the group in the couple of months before they begin university in October: Hetty takes herself off to the Lakes District to study, Una bicycles around the countryside with her friend Ray, and Lieselotte vanishes to London following a bureaucratic breakthrough in finding her relative.

What I liked about this book was the strong, feisty, multi-dimensional characters –- from the three young women to their parents, and other adults in their lives.  In the cases of Hetty and Una, I enjoyed the exploration of the relationships each had with their mothers — a type of exploration I haven’t really encountered before in much fiction.  Mothers tend to be characterized as foils, as others, as objects to be defined against, or just plain perfect.  But in The Flight of the Maidens this bond is examined, looking at how it’s maintained and valued despite its imperfections.

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Review: Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

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I don’t know quite where to start this post.  Even though this book was incredibly enjoyable and highly uplifting, I’ve avoided writing anything about it because it was so darned good and I fear that anything I have to say about it is going to do it little justice.  But as Franklin Roosevelt himself said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’   My fear is off to the kitchen to make me a cup of tea so while it’s away, here goes.

I’m Australian and American history is not taught here in schools though it does occur at some universities.  When I was at university, I chose British politics and Middle Eastern politics to study so I know zip about American history.  I’d heard of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States in the 1940s or thereabouts, but only in the context of his visit to Australia during the war and that was about it.

But over the last few years, I’ve become greatly interested in American political history and the cause is rather an unusual one.  A few years ago I read a brilliant biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English feminist, educator and thinker of the late eighteenth century.  The biography was by Lyndall Gordon, called Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate and highly-researched account of Wollstonecraft’s life.

In her book, Gordon outlines how Mary in her early twenties started a school in the North London suburb of Newington Green.  It was the 1780s and Mary’s neighbours were dissenters and radicals, most notably the preacher Dr Richard Price, a radical intellectual and supporter of the American War of Independence who was to have a significant influence on Mary’s thought.  His published pamphlets on Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution were highly influential, the last being written for American revolutionary leaders such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin (an old friend of Price), John Adams and others.  Through her exposure to Price and his ideas, Wollstonecraft was able to develop her own ideas on education for children and women’s rights.

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BOOK REVIEW: Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope

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BOOK REVIEW: Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope, fiction, 2008, paperback – pp.414.

 

For some reason I confused Joanna Trollope with Mary Wesley and ended up going home with Friday Nights rather than The Chamomile Lawn.  I don’t quite know how this happened, but it did.  Expectations of Mary Wesley aside, Friday Nights provoked a mixed reaction from me: there was a lot of potential but it didn’t quite live up to it.

 

Trollope, Friday NightsBriefly, Friday Nights is about a group of women who meet on said night to get a dose of womanhood.  They’re from all walks of life – Eleanor, the instigator and retired public servant; Paula, the single mother of Toby; Lindsay, the single mother of Noah; Jules, Lindsay’s DJ sister; Blaise, the careerist; and Karen, Blaise’s business partner, who is trying to juggle work and motherhood.  They have met and supported each other through their lives for the past few years, but when Paula brings her new boyfriend along one night, friendships start to change.

 

It’s a nice idea but Friday Nights was too ordinary for my liking.  I read to go to a different world, even if that world is a contemporary one that I’m familiar with because there’s something about good writing that can make the everyday seem extraordinary.  But with Friday Nights, I didn’t respond to the downtrodden, slightly self-pitying nature, of the two single women, and Eleanor felt like too much like an oracle rather than a real person, spouting apparent wisdom when other less-together characters faltered. 

 

But the redeeming feature of Friday Nights was the insight it offered into the lives of contemporary women.  For instance, Karen ponders the changing nature of her relationship with her husband after having children:

 

What was it about motherhood that could put marriage in the shade?  What was it about oneself that made one still not want motherhood to be the only identifying mark?

 

And in a conversation that Blaise is having with Eleanor about the choice women seem to have to make between a career or children, she says of Karen’s difficulties in juggling the two:

 

… for women like us, brought up with the highest expectations, it can be quite easy, I think, to find yourself inconsolable.

 

They’re strong ideas and though they’re not really explored or addressed, it’s probably enough that questions about them are raised because they’re real and they’re out there. 

 

I suspect that Friday Nights is going to be an interesting read in 10-15 years.  It will date as times change but it will prove an illuminating read for older and wiser selves who lived through it, and for a younger generation who will ask with some disbelief as they (I hope) sail with ease through the management of their own lives, careers and children, Was that really the way it was for women then?