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Force or Fraud
Force or Fraud
by Toni Bowers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £73.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A whale of a book, 31 July 2011
This review is from: Force or Fraud (Hardcover)
`Force or Fraud' is `about' far more than its immediate subject - in this case early genre fictions of seduction and abandonment. Before we ever reach those books, we take a lengthy tour through the meanings of our terms, starting with the medieval idea of rape as theft; a crime against the father, not the woman herself, whose consent (or otherwise) was of little interest. Through the C18th period, our modern definitions of `seduction' and `rape' began to be constructed, both legally and linguistically, according to the response (collusion or resistance) of the woman in question, who emerges - slowly - from the shadows as a subject. The political dimension - or, more pertinently, the blurring of distinction between the personal and the political - is Bowers' fascination, as she looks at how seduction stories allowed contemporary readers to consider the problem of virtuous resistance to authority. She would like us to go beyond the rape-or-seduction dichotomy (`Force or Fraud'), arguing that if it limits the woman's agency to mere consent, her voice is just `yes' or `no'. "What if we choose to doubt that sexual interactions... are adequately described as either consensual or non-consensual?" she asks. As female desire is complicity in seduction, Bowers' project is thus to find a space between force and fraud; both politically and privately, in what she calls `collusive resistance.'

And so we start, not really in the 1660s, but in the multiple political crises of the 1680s. Tory ideology had long argued for political non-resistance, for passive obedience to the King as God's representative on Earth. But what if the King's actions were manifestly wrong, as with the hated King James II? Whigs - the mainstream political Left - had executed Charles I in 1649; had grumbled through but colluded in the reign of the weak and flawed Charles II. But upon Charles II's death in 1685, the crown passed to his catholic brother James II, against whom even Tories might wish to rebel. Enter: the Duke of Monmouth. Bowers argues that Monmouth - Charles II's illegitimate son, who led a failed rebellion against James II that summer - was a seducer who was himself fatally seduced. She notes how contemporary metaphors have him flipping between male and female roles; a charismatic hermaphrodite, an universal object of desire. His person, as a dashing and gallant commander, and his position as a (crucially) protestant Prince made him a seducer, one who carries all hearts with him, but, his faults (as his father once quipped) were never his own, they were his advisors': the rebellion was always something into which he had been seduced by false counsellors.

After this, finally, we reach the novels; beginning with one of the first true novels in English, Aphra Behn's "Love letters between a nobleman and his sister" (1684-7). Based upon the true story of Lord Grey, Monmouth's right-hand man, who eloped with his wife's younger sister. But where are the woman's wishes/desires in all this? Court records of the prosecution denied them entirely (it was the man who was on trial) until, dramatically, she appeared to speak in his defence, arguing her own willingness. For Behn, coming from a Tory standpoint, this showed the perversity and degeneracy of the Whigs in all their deeds; the seduction a kind of petty sedition. The woman's mock-resistance in the book does not in the least mask her real desire to be seduced, something Behn sees as both unwomanly and uncitizenly conduct. Neither Grey nor Monmouth turned out to be particularly heroic in the real world in the end, and again, Behn sees it as almost inevitable that one who would break his allegiance and duty to his King and father, would do the same to his wife and followers also. Behn died in 1689; to see how Tory writers would go on to generate a concept of virtuous subordinate resistance we have to look at the seduction stories of her successors; Manley, Haywood and Richardson. In this section I got some way out of my depth, since I am familiar with a lot less of the source material, but I'll try to do it justice.

Before we discuss them, however, we briefly look at the Tory Bishop Berkeley's contribution to the `passive obedience' debate in the post-1689 era. Berkeley subtly redefined the terms of such obedience, as being due to the Sovereign, and not to the person thereof, thus eliding hereditary right. So, when James II, faced with William of Orange's invasion, abdicated the throne and fled the country, he ceased to be sovereign and his subjects were released from their allegiance. This must have salved the consciences of many; against him came the thunderings of the old-Tory Sacheverell against dissenters, who he thought were, just as much as catholics, seducers from the truth. Sacheverell was briefly a hero to High Church mobs who in 1710 pulled down meeting-houses and stoned the dissenters; there was apparently no irony in the fact that this was all done in the name of `passive obedience'! Berkeley's narrowing of definition of what was rebellion to "Force and open violence," did however allow new space for all sorts of quietly resistant behaviours and attitudes - which leads us back, once more, to Bowers' big idea: collusive resistance to authority; in which the subject may remain virtuous despite complicity.

In the seduction novels, Bowers sees the Crisis of the Abdication (or `the Glorious Revolution,' as it was known by Whigs - one person sees the cloud, his neighbour the silver lining) looming over all. The disappearing King leads to a collapse of patriarchal authority, and an obsession with defrauded inheritances, and faithfulness to vows. Female desire is not criminal, but agency - its expression - is. The occasional heroine, in Haywood, for example, who is allowed to retain both effective sexual agency and virtue is a rare one, and seems to walk to the altar over the bodies of scores of her ruined, unhappy sisters. The genre reaches a climax (as it were) in Samuel Richardson's epic `Clarissa,' the bane of every literature student I have ever met. Bowers sees Clarissa's refusal to marry the man who raped her - a decision that is beyond the comprehension of every other character in the book - as a radical refusal of the reductive binary `Force or Fraud;' a simple statement that these choices are not enough. I fear I've gone on too long already in this review, but that is perhaps as good a place to end as any. A wonderful book.


Twenty Thousand Saints
Twenty Thousand Saints
by Fflur Dafydd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Men were scarce that summer...", 19 May 2011
This review is from: Twenty Thousand Saints (Paperback)
"Men were scarce that summer. The women of Bardsey Island had begun giving each other languorous looks; had begun talking to each other in quivering, feverish tones. Most of them didn't even realise they were doing it..."

These are great opening lines; evocative, and they draw you in at once.`Twenty Thousand Saints' is a novel set on Ynys Enlli - Bardsey - among a group of summer volunteers, expats and nuns; a writer-in-residence, a documentary crew; a nicely disparate jumble of characters, easily outnumbering the island's full-time inhabitants. It's not exactly Enlli `as it is' (whatever that might mean), but Enlli through the eyes of a self-centred Cardiff media elite, many of whom are struggling to make a connection with their roots, with something `authentic'. And while the opening chapters of the book may seem a little slow, the pace gradually picks up. For about the first half of the book you're thinking, this is a thriller where nothing happens, it's all about something that happened ten years before. By the end it is hectic, breakneck.

For all that, however, it does have faults. The shifting of perspective between different characters sometimes feels unfocussed, and the shifting of tenses means that the chronology is at times confusing. But I found these things pretty easy to forgive, for an engaging story with, at times, some really haunting descriptive passages.


The Text of Shelley's Death
The Text of Shelley's Death
by Alan Halsey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Who knows the truth about Shelley's death?, 14 May 2011
`Everybody knows the text of Shelley's death,' this book begins. And the bare bones, I guess, are common knowledge: Percy Shelley setting off in his new yacht from Leghorn on a clear day, the storm whipping up within a few hours, the disappearance, the anguished search, the eventual discovery of his corpse on the shoreline.
Halsey - a fine poet himself - takes all of the varied and varying accounts of the poet's death and does an interesting thing; instead of sifting through them as an historian might, he butts them up against each other, forcing the contradictions to rise to the surface. Thus, constantly repeating and self-contradicting, it becomes a story of doubling; people and boats change names, books change titles, people appear in two places at once. It is not so much `What or where is the truth?' but `All of this is the truth.' All this myth-making, setting off in different directions, on different days... in the end, it is the chaos, the storm, that is the truth.


The Last Man (Wordsworth Classics)
The Last Man (Wordsworth Classics)
by Mary Shelley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A vision of the future?, 14 May 2011
A post-apocalyptic science-fantasy (written in 1826), "The Last Man" is Shelley's howl of rage at all the deaths she had witnessed; a revenge fantasy on the straight world that she had seen take from her, in the space of 6 or 7 years, almost every single person for whom she cared - her sister, husband, three of their four children; Byron, Claire Claremont's daughter, etc. Even before she came to write this novel, the author was picturing herself in her journals as the last man standing, "last relic of a beloved race". Now in `The Last Man,' she beheads both Enlightenment optimism and traditional Christian promise and hope, in its picture of a devastating plague that can extinguish the entire human race. The narrator, a typically Rousseau-ean hero (was that actually a word?) and Adrian, based on Percy Shelley, seem at first epitomes of Romantic Man, destined to triumph over all. Adrian even addresses a company - in Windsor Castle, of all places! - in stirring Churchillean "fight them on the beaches" terms. But still it is in vain; even England succumbs.

The SF elements - the book is set in the 2080s - seem curiously conservative to a modern reader. This is an entirely pre-Industrial Revolution landscape; a world of servants, carriages and post-chaises. People hop dashingly into a hot-air balloon to travel long-distance, but that still means three days from London to Scotland; six days to cross Europe. Mary Shelley has the wit to imagine an end to monarchy; but unlike France in her own day, in Great Britain it has simply withered away. The aristocratic party remains strong in parliament, and scheme to get `their man' - the last scion of the House of Windsor - elected Lord Protector. And there is an interesting echo of her mother's political sensitivities at times; her obvious distaste for Methodism in Volume III has an air of old-Tory Anglicanism to it. Some might argue this would have been for the benefit of her readership - since Shelley at this point was writing to survive and keep her only remaining child - but I would argue that she was independent-minded enough for me to suspect that this was more her own beliefs coming through. She and her mother were both some little way to the right of where their husbands painted them to be.

The single problem with this book is essentially the three-decker format that popular novels of the day were required to fit. Volume I is thus bloated and in places boring; it is only the reader who perseveres through to Volumes II and III who gets the good stuff. I'll leave the last words to her narrator, Verney (his own name, I think, an echo of Volney, author of `The Ruins'): "...my human mind cannot acknowledge that all that is, is right; yet since what is, must be, I will sit amidst the ruins and smile."


Forever Amber
Forever Amber
by Kathleen Winsor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shamelessly enjoyable rewrite of 'Gone With The Wind', 5 April 2011
This review is from: Forever Amber (Paperback)
Amber fulfils what may be many a young girl's dream, by being spit-makingly beautiful and absolutely horrible. Abandoned penniless and pregnant on the streets of 1660s London at the start of the novel, Amber is, let's be fair, not just no better than she should be, but considerably worse. She steals her lovers from other women and crows about it; she lies, cheats and schemes, locks an old woman in a room to die alone of the Plague; she is utterly feline, sybaritic and selfish. I'm not the only person to have noticed that this book is in some ways a rewrite of "Gone With The Wind;" Amber can't have the man she loves, she can't love the man she has, and so she ends up treating everyone horribly, making everyone miserable, and deserves everything she gets. But still, she is a heroine to women. Not so much to male readers I suspect; we don't tend to like Scarlett O'Hara much either, we think she's a bit of an annoying tit, but somehow women, even if they dislike her, are drawn to her like magnets. I don't think this book would have sold three million copies if Amber wasn't somehow oddly lovable - she lives by her wits and she has spirit, even if, like Scarlett, she has a singular talent for unhappiness. "No woman is ever satisfied unless she knows she can hurt the man who loves her," is one of Winsor's precious pearls of wisdom, which might I suppose be true, but is a pretty depressing thought.

It sounds as though I didn't like this book, but I did. For a start, I have never read a thousand-page novel faster, and the Plague section at the heart of the book (roughly pages 450-550) is amazing. This isn't just Defoe re-told, it's a visceral journey through hell that really doesn't seem to belong in a romantic fiction novel, with all the symptoms described in horrific detail as she kills off and disposes of three nurses in quick succession, mopping up blood, pus and sick - and finally falls ill with the Plague herself. But of course she survives. Pepys is the background to the book, 1660-1670, and he seems to provide the majority of Winsor's research, as she firmly takes the `official line,' seeing the Puritans as a kind of Taliban and the corrupt Stuart court as a golden age. The Americanisms throughout (`in back,' `standing in line,' `mad' for `angry' etc) sit a little oddly in the context, but not as much as the occasional complete misunderstandings of custom (a young person seeing their aristocratic father and calling out "Dad!" for instance, when it could only have been "Sir" - and they would never have dared speak first) and a bizarre ignorance of how boats work. The book was published in 1944 (eight years after `Gone With...") and I felt at times there were slightly heavy-handed parallels being drawn between London in the Blitz and the `Great Fire' section. But none of these things stop it being utterly compelling. Since finishing it, I found a short piece by Elaine Showalter about the book, who describes the breathless accounts of Amber's outfits, which can go on for a page at a time with all the silks, laces and layers, as a kind of rationing-era fashion porn. My mum told she remembered nursing my older brother whilst reading the passage where Amber's first child is taken away from her, and how that affected her. It reminded me too of the Margaret Lockwood film "The Wicked Lady," which I saw at the age of 5 or 6 and loved. As a child I loved the central character; watching it again as an adult I found myself wanting to identify instead with every other character around her, and wish her a sticky end herself. I'm not going to tell you what happens at the end of the book, though.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 11, 2013 8:13 PM GMT


The Spiral Staircase
The Spiral Staircase
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A curious return to 'God'., 5 April 2011
This review is from: The Spiral Staircase (Paperback)
This is Armstrong's third volume of autobiography, and it attempts to completely undermine her second. Apparently, after the success of her first ("Through the Narrow Gate," which told the story of her seven years as a Catholic nun, her breakdown, and her leaving the convent) her publishers hurried her into writing a second volume, which, they argued, should come across as bright and breezy as possible; she, being new to publishing, agreed. The result was a book I haven't read, but that she describes as the worst thing she ever wrote, and now happily long out-of-print.

It is also probable, it seems to me, that it was just too soon after the events to give a mature reflection on things. Thirty years later she can tell a story that takes her through her catastrophic loss of faith, and along a curious arc that finds her now living quietly, by herself, as a writer on comparative religion; not exactly a nun, I suppose, but she has certainly moved some distance back towards the position of being a believer. Perhaps she has simply reinterpreted the formless desires and questions that led her to join the convent in the first place, having gone through the anger and rejection and out the other side. Certainly the biggest surprise of the book is that it is funny: Armstrong left her convent in 1969 and most of this book is about the 1970s - she has sufficient distance to laugh at things she did or said, or at situations that could only have been blackly comic at best at the time. Her long-undiagnosed epilepsy and her brushes with psychiatric institutions could have been profoundly disturbing, but her sense of wonder and delight at many things often seem as pure as a child's. It's as though the `loss' of the years 17-24 from her life insulated her in some way... not that the convent was a cocoon: it comes across as a bleak and harsh environment in many ways, but whilst it was teaching her not to feel or think for herself, it saved her the acquisition of cynicism that so many learn in those years. She would probably agree that it shaped the whole of her life, not just part of it.

The most vivid section, for me, was the part where she finds herself a part-time nanny to a delightful but severely autistic child in a barmy bohemian household. It might seem the most alien environment you can imagine after a convent, but you realise that her experience has realigned any idea of what is `normal' and what is `crazy'; it certainly doesn't seem any crazier than the rounds of student life and student parties that so baffle her. Maybe she has just a trace of the savant about her herself, and that is her precious pearl of wisdom. I certainly think it's a positive thing that, though she writes and lectures widely, she is not an academic. She brings to her discussions of Judaism, of Islam, of modernist poetry, both a probing intelligence but also a will to enter into someone else's world that is both liberating and enlightening.


The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight
The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight
by Gina Ochsner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming, funny and honest., 5 April 2011
I found this book full of life and ideas; it's a big sweeping novel about the absurdity of Russian life, and the combination of lyricism with that absurdity is heart-breakingly sad at times. Although the blackly comic ending brings resolution to some of the characters at least, part of the point of the book (and the constant complaint of the mothers) is that nothing ever really changes in Russia; things just get a little bit worse. The book is centred on a trio who all work in a run-down, small-town museum, faking exhibits; the hard materialistic Zoya, her boyfriend Yuri who is haunted by what he has seen on military service in Chechnya, and the clumsy, poetic Tanya who is the real heroine of the book, as real and breathing a character as I've read in a long time. They haven't been paid for months, but they keep coming in to work, largely because it's warm and has a toilet, unlike the condemned and (literally) sinking block of flats where they all live. At one point they are huddled together in a café over an application for funding from an American charity, trying to make sense of the phrase `positive work ethic.' "But do such words even belong together?" one asks, in exasperation. Their mothers back at the flats also form a trio; one Orthodox, one Jewish and one Muslim, they are at once at each others' throats and shamelessly in need of each other. The author manages a very light touch, even when dealing with big issues, and a wistful humour in the midst of a lot of darkness, that I would copy if I had the ability, but as I probably don't, I will just admire.


Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Oxford World's Classics)
Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Oxford World's Classics)
by Mary Wollstonecraft
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The perfect picture of the author., 5 April 2011
If the guiding spirit of Wollstonecraft's `Original Stories' was Dissenting Christianity tinged with a little pantheism, in the `Letters' it is the other way round. Her typically rational, enquiring manner is still evident ("At supper my host told me bluntly that I was a woman of observation, for I asked him men's questions") but the landscape inspires her to frequent outbreaks of wonder at the sublime scenes before her. These rhapsodies are not confined to waterfalls and mountains, however, but also gentler, more homely scenes - the kind of thing that Burke would have called merely `beautiful' - in her solitary evening rambles. She cheerfully relates that, occasionally losing her way, she would to the consternation of the locals, have to clamber over ditches and hedges to get home. But even as she celebrates the simple life, she also attacks Rousseau's idealism. That the world needs improving, she does not question; we need to clear the forests and plant, to cultivate both crops and manners. She is no revolutionary; a middle-class radical at most, taking a `good manners' view of the Progress of Society. You can certainly tell that she had worked as a governess. She accepts entirely that there are to be strata in society, from the highest to the lowest, when she writes that `we' should care for `our' servants and treat them well; it is hard to imagine that she would ever dream of emancipating them.

Where Wollstonecraft's radicalism comes through most strongly is in her contrast of Norway and Sweden. She wishes to show that Norway is more advanced and sophisticated due to the political freedoms enjoyed by its populace, their relative economic independence and self-determination having served to elevate their minds. Norway was a tenant state of Denmark, yet enjoyed relative autonomy: she delightedly relates that when the Danish Prince Royal made an expedition to Sweden some years earlier, he was obliged to request the Norwegian militia to accompany him; he could not command them. More significant to us today might be the recourse to law, and appeal at law, of the Norwegian peasantry; that tenant farmers could not be summarily dismissed from their farms if they displeased a powerful man, and the freedoms of the Norwegian Press. In all of this it seems to me that Wollstonecraft went rather against the spirit of the time, which tended to see the advanced social order of Sweden as the nobler, in that it more closely resembled England, of course; but then she made her travels in the country, and was more interested in the state of the people as a whole than in High Society.

The final thing that intrigued me was a short flight of fancy she takes (Letter XI), on the possibility of future overpopulation and famine, when the earth in "a million or two years" has reached its carrying capacity. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, never knew her poor mother, but she certainly read her books; we know in fact that Percy read this particular book aloud to her the summer they eloped together. I wonder whether it sowed a seed for her apocalyptic late novel "The Last Man"?


MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT'S ORIGINAL STORIES
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT'S ORIGINAL STORIES
by E.V., intr. LUCAS
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Unjustly neglected., 5 April 2011
I'd heard this book derided as a string of conventional moral platitudes, but really, it is nothing of the sort. It is a series of stories for the moral instruction of children, certainly, but in its appeal to the reason and natural faculties of girls, in particular, it is surprisingly modern. The most `radical' educational thinker of the18th century, Rousseau, never got as far as suggesting that girls be taught to reason. For him, the sexes were necessarily imbalanced: "The whole education of women ought to relate to men" he argued, in `Emile'. "To please men, to be useful to them, to make herself loved and honoured by them... to counsel them, to console them, to make their lives agreeable and sweet--these are the duties of women at all times."

By contrast, Wollstonecraft ignores men almost entirely in this book. It is about the education of two girls, by a single (widowed) woman. It will certainly come as a surprise however to anyone who has read Godwin's memoir of the author, that presented her as a free-thinker and an atheist. It was not until I read `Original Stories' myself that I realised how much Godwin was projecting his own beliefs onto his wife; her own stories display a firm and passionate Christian faith, tinged with pantheism, as concern for animals and for God revealed in nature loom large. The book also displays a gothic imagination that finds a perfect mirror in William Blake's illustrations, and could perhaps have found another in the mind of the daughter she never saw grow up.

I should be careful here: elements that would strike us now as gothic - children dying of fever in prison, and so on - might have seemed to contemporary readers merely realistic. On the other hand, others are genuine 18th century gothic: the certainty that your sins shall find you out, usually in the most brutal way imaginable; a fascination with storms and ruined castles.

It has been suggested that Blake was attempting to undermine the author's text; I cannot see this at all. That seems to me a response of someone wishing to distance their precious Blake from what they see as conventional piety; but I think any proper read of the book will show the closeness of Blake and Wollstonecraft's concerns at this period. In the social critiques of Chapters 23-24, or in the repeated exhortations not to listen to the voice of the crowd, but to do what you know, or discern, to be right, I think they would have been absolutely of one mind.

My 6 year-old son asked me about the book. I told him it was all about how to bring children up, 200 years ago. He asked me to read some of it, so I chose the chapter about the shipwreck and the one about the Welsh castle. He said "I can picture all this in my mind" during the first of these, and then asked for another. "This is good, isn't it, daddy? You didn't think I'd like it did you?" I honestly didn't.


The Behaviour Of Moths
The Behaviour Of Moths
by Poppy Adams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A chilling slice of modern gothic - but forget the ending!, 5 April 2011
This review is from: The Behaviour Of Moths (Paperback)
This is a chilling slice of modern gothic. The narrator is consumed with the unspoken desire not to exist, to leave no mark or trace. Which might be possible for many people - it's easy enough to be ignored - but that she happens to live in a crumbling mansion. Her self-effacement is bleak and upsetting at times; the word `Aspergers' popped into my mind early on the book, as she is clearly exceptionally intelligent and yet has great difficulty understanding emotions, or emotional motivations, but no easy `labels' are applied. This is certainly for the better; it makes it a vivid portrayal of attitudes to `disability' or `difference' a generation or so ago. She has clearly been through extensive psychological testing in her childhood, but all she can remember of this is that the doctor came to play card games with her that her sister was not allowed to join in; that they were all about guessing what someone in a picture was feeling, and they were a bit boring.

There are intense ironies here. Everyone in the family had to protect and shelter her, it seems, and yet it was she who nursed her alcoholic mother and bore her drunken rages - no one protected her from that, and her sister went on to take a kind of advantage of her passivity that is genuinely shocking. I thought at times of "I capture the castle" in terms of the family dynamics as an influence; in the conversation between the sisters, with their differing interpretations of the past I couldn't help seeing in my mind that amazingly-lit 1940s film "The Spiral Staircase". At the very end of the novel, however the psychodrama tips over into melodrama, and the conclusion is a boring cliché that's been done dozens of times before. A shame, but it's still a compelling book.


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