Thursday, 20 February 2014

Foremothers by Sandra Horn

     Someone once described Elizabeth Jane Howard as 'a writer's writer'.
     It got me thinking how many other writers I'd put in the same category: those who, above and beyond being excellent and engaging spinners of tales in precise and delightful prose, create an empathic bond with the reader.
     I'm a huge fan of EJH, Rebecca West and Dodi Smith, among many others now no longer with us except in their books. They were writing about a time that is no more, and yet we can immediately enter into the lives of their characters almost as if they are people we know.
     In The Fountain Overflows and I Captured the Castle, the young female narrators struggle with the eccentricities of their families and are often angry and muddle-headed about how to survive the chaos created by around them by their adults - so far, so not different from now, then - but I fall in love with them every time I read the books (yes, EVERY time; they are in the pile by my bed for reading and re-reading, for pleasure, for comfort, for little specks of light in the dark).
     Both West and Smith were extraordinary women who led unconventional lives. They were misfits, defiers of convention, unwomanly in times when to be 'feminine' was defined by prettiness and meekness and having few aspirations beyond being good wives and mothers and not drawing attention to oneself. Seemliness.
     I don't think of EJH in the same way. She was moulded and pushed around by the conventions of her day, particularly when it came to men-women relationships. She wasn't an exact contemporary of the actress Irene Handl, who once said that when she was young, if someone wanted to rape you, you felt you should let them rather than be thought disobliging, but there is a sense in her autobiography Slipstream, that obedience to the wishes of others, particularly men, was ingrained in her. This is apparent in her female characters, particularly the Cazalet women in the early books, and the emancipation of  the younger generations is not won easily either. Their lives may be richer but they are harder, once they step out of the shackles of convention.
     Of course, all three women were writing about a particular stratum of society; for all its difficulties, and even through times of relative poverty, it is middle-England, middle-class and in some sense protected from the grinding nitty-gritties of life. Somehow the characters reach out from those other times and other social mores, though. A deep sympathy with and understanding of the human condition runs through the work of all three writers. I think that's why I love 'em - and loathe the cold and sneery take on humankind espoused by the likes of the Amis ilk. Hats off and a deep respectful bow to these our literary foremothers.

3 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

Hear hear! I love them too.

JO said...

I'm with you, raising my hat to wonderful women writers.

Lydia Bennet said...

so many wonderful women writers, hard to know where to start - so many wonderful men too, but yes I know what you mean about the sneery cold attitude of Amis and co. their books are all about 'look at me, I'm so clever'. (mind you the fabulous Virginia W could be sneery too if you weren't a 'bloomsberry')