Daphne du Maurier’s letters to Oriel Malet

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been following the Month of Letters February challenge for the past few years, I think since its first year. I missed last year, but I am back on course for 2018. In honour of Month of Letters, I usually try to write a letter themed post at this time, and so here is this February’s offering. I also hope to give an update on my letter writing progress too as the month goes on.

Letters from MenabillyMy letter themed post this time features one of my all-time favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier in correspondence with a fellow writer, Oriel Malet. The collection, edited by Oriel Malet is entitled Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993). I have had this collection for some while and I don’t think I have ever got around to reading it properly. It was published in the same years as Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, whom Oriel Malet credits in her acknowledgments. I bought the biography the same year it came out, but I think Letters from Menabilly came to me some years later as a second-hand bargain. The letters interspersed with Malet’s commentary chart the course of a thirty-year friendship between the women and their families beginning with their chance meeting in the mid-1950s.

Oriel Malet begins the book by talking about how, when and where she and Daphne du Maurier first met and how their relationship developed. She was still a young writer at this point whereas du Maurier was very successful and well-known. Malet at this point had heard of du Maurier but not read any of her books. They shared an American publisher, Doubleday, and first met at a London party hosted by the publisher’s wife Ellen Doubleday. They had shared a mutual dislike of social gatherings and being forced to meet new people, but when they found themselves waiting outside the Doubleday hotel suite for the hostess to arrive, they struck up an unforced conversation. Neither woman introduced herself and it wasn’t until the party began that Oriel Malet realised to whom she had been speaking. She described Daphne rather poetically thus, ‘she reminded me of a figurehead at the prow of a ship; alert, poised, looking into the distance yet perhaps laughing inwardly and no more at ease in so worldly as setting than I was myself’. If you look at this photo from the book you can see what she meant. They sneaked away from the party together and talked while Daphne packed for her return to trip to Cornwall. And the rest as they say, was history. The letters cover many topics and events in the women’s lives, but I just want to focus on one of the conversational threads for this blog post.Portrait of Daphne du Maurier

Literary advice

I was particularly interested in Daphne du Maurier’s generosity in giving advice to the younger writer. Over the course of the years the two women discussed writers (both of them were Katherine Mansfield fans) and writing in both general and specific terms. In one of the early letters in the collection, du Maurier gives Malet advice on a book that she is working on, saying ‘You don’t have to have a ‘plot’; it sounds like Guy Fawkes in his old cloak, creeping with a lantern’. The imagery is amusing but she goes on to explain her point, elaborating thus, ‘You don’t even have to have action  (think of Proust). But you must have a real reason for it all, a reason for the things you want to say’. Eminently sensible advice from a seasoned professional. In a later letter after reading a draft of a short story, du Maurier urges Malet to consider its potential as a novel,

I read your story going up in the train, and was absorbed by it. I love the way you write, and the things you write about, but my criticism would be that this atmosphere and story are wasted on a short story – you should develop it into a novel … I think you have the potential material here for a lovely long and interesting book.

The letters and Oriel Malet’s memories of her visits to Menabilly also weave in the progress of du Maurier’s own work. On one such visit, Malet recalls crossing a field and being afraid of a resident bull. Du Maurier was however more concerned with a flock of seagulls, remarking how frightening it would be ‘if all the birds in the world were to gang up together and attack us…..They could you know’. She was proved right in the disturbing short story ‘The Birds’ (from The Appletree, Gollancz, 1952) which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.

I was also intrigued by the importance of the Brontës’ early writing about the fictional world of Angria and Gondal. In du Maurier-speak, ‘to Gondal’ meant to pretend or to make-believe and the expression crops up several times during the course of the correspondence. In August 1963, Daphne wrote to Oriel,

If I pass a place I once lived (like at Hampstead), I often do a Gondal, whereby I go into it just as if it were still mine, and take my coat off, and somehow settle down, and then try to imagine the amaze surprise of the new owner coming in, and how one would behave in the Gondal just as if they were not there, and one was still in possession.  …

Another thing I Gondal about, is supposing one suddenly went and rang at a person’s house, who was a Fan- …

Du Maurier was fascinated by Branwell Brontë and the book she wrote about him, the Infernal World of Branwell Brontë appears to have been simmering in the background for many years. She was very knowledgeable about the Brontë family and visited Haworth with Oriel after being asked to write a preface for a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954.  Oriel later received a letter in which Daphne says the Macdonald Classics editor claimed that ‘he had never read anything before that gave him such a vivid and convincing impression of her [Emily’s] work and personality’. I was amused to note that the literary tone of this letter finished on a prosaic note however, mentioning a friend’s assertion that the Channel boats would go on strike as they were owned by British Railways. Daphne anxiously enquires of Oriel, ‘Do you think this is true?’ Clearly even best-selling writers have to be practical.

A note on the ‘in’ language in the letters

The first thing a reader notices in reading any collection of letters such as this, is that a private world is laid open for perusal. I would recommend not neglecting to read Oriel Malet’s helpful glossary of the du Maurier family’s expressions and nicknames before you start the letters, or you will be forever dodging back and forth to clarify the meaning of sentences, especially Malet took on some of these expressions and uses them in her reminisces. I found it strange to be grappling with family language because it did at times make me feel that I was an unwanted intruder into a private world. There is also the disconcerting feeling that it is all a bit childish for adults to be using what sometimes seemed like nursery language. For instance, Du Maurier refers to having a period as having a ‘Robert’ and ‘to wax’ meaning sex. On the other hand, her term ‘brewing’ for working on a story or plot makes perfect sense and conjures up a sense of the author intently and productively mulling over her characters and their actions.

Having said all of that, I found much to enjoy in the letters and the accompanying contextual passages. In fact, I am struggling to suppress an urge to re-read all of the Daphne du Maurier books I have ever read and to catch up on those I have mysteriously missed out reading to date. Another blog series methinks. Now on my mental TBR pile are books by Oriel Malet, as I must confess that I have never read any of her books.

I have also come across a post about Daphne and Oriel on a blog called Something Rhymed, which looks at female literary friendships.

Do drop me a line if you are a Du Maurier fan too!

 

Eleanor and Sarah: The Llangollen Ladies

I can’t believe that so much time has slipped by without a Landing update. The whole of October seems to have sunk without trace, although I have been quietly reading behind the scenes so not all is yet lost. However, I feel as though I have many loose ends to tie up, with various books lying about that I have planned to record on the blog. Some books have been genuine TBR subjects while others have been serendipitous library finds.

The Llangollen Ladies

A reprint of a 1936 title by Dr Mary Gordon

One Landing TBR Pile title tackled earlier this year was The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby known as the Ladies of Llangollen. I had heard of the Ladies before I spotted this book, so when I saw the title I jumped at the chance to discover something about the women’s history. Yet again, I have one of the Trinity College book sale events (in 2009) to thank for this little find (and even better, I bought it on half price Saturday).

This book by Dr Mary Gordon is a reprint (John Jones Publishing, 1999) of her earlier title, Chase of the Wild Goose that originally came out in 1936. Gordon tells the story of the relationship between the two Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler (1745-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831) who left Ireland to make their home in the Vale of Llangollen in 1778. Gordon was a devoted fan of the Ladies and was keen to put forward a fresh view of the story. Gordon felt that time had obscured the real background of the Ladies’ flight from Ireland to Wales and that over the years, rumours and gossip had become myth. In this book, she set out to revive the Ladies’ reputations and to return to available contemporary evidence such as surviving journals and letters from one of the Ladies’ friends.

The two women met and became fast friends at Eleanor Butler’s family seat, Kilkenny Castle. Subsequently they fled from their families and social obligations to live in a modest cottage in north Wales, which caused much consternation amongst friends and family. Neither woman wished to obey their family and make advantageous matches. They wished to live independently and have the opportunity to study and develop their minds. I admire their urge for freedom from the constraints of marriage, but the ladies were no revolutionary spirits. They were very aware of their social status as ladies and so this was not a bid for the freedom of earning a living or roughing it in rural poverty.

The Libray, Plas Newydd

An undated interior image of the house, taken from the book.

The Ladies lived In Llangollen for the rest of their lives, turning a stone cottage (renaming it Plas Newydd) into a place where, over a period of fifty years, the great and good were eager to visit. Not that Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah by any means admitted all of their putative visitors. They were rather choosy about callers, never forgetting their respective aristocratic backgrounds.

Several writers have since written about the two women and their relationship. Were they a lesbian couple or were they simply fleeing from the limited opportunities then available to women. Romantic, even passionate friendships between women were common at this time. This extract from a Telegraph article by Anne Campbell Dixon refers to another biography on the Llangollen Ladies that I have found (details below),

My guess, from reading Elizabeth Mavor’s excellent biography, is that Eleanor was a lesbian, whether she realised it or not (likely not, as it was unheard-of until an outbreak of “sapphism” at the French court brought it to English society’s notice in 1789); but that Sarah – if she had not met Eleanor at the impressionable age of 13, and if she had not needed to escape from her guardian – might have settled down just as happily with a husband.

I suppose at this stage, nobody can ever give a definitive opinion on the Ladies’ sexuality. Especially, since social mores have changed so much. As Campbell points out, ‘The word romantic simply meant fanciful or eccentric in the 18th century. And it was the fashion for friends – male as well as female – to write and speak to each other in language which we now reserve for sexual partners. Nor was it uncommon to share a bed with a sister or friend.’ I also discovered an essay by Alison Oram in Re-presenting the Past: Women and History, entitled ‘Telling Stories about the Ladies of Llangollen: the construction of lesbian and feminist theories’, which I have yet to follow up on.

The intriguing story behind the origins of this book is that Mary Gordon claimed to have seen and spoken with the ghosts of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby in their former home in Llangollen. I am not sure that the story convinces me, as I am sceptical of ghost sightings in general. Part of me would like to believe that Gordon did indeed meet the Ladies, and had a cosy natter, but part of me feels that it was it was simply a good way to frame her story. I suppose we will never know for sure. However, her book introduced the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby to a new audience, despite the ‘did she/didn’t she’ question hanging over its ghostly origins.

Mary Gordon freely imagines conversations taking place between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (such as on their first meeting) as well as other family interactions, so the book reads more as a sentimental novel than a rigorous biography. Clearly, Gordon was biased in her admiration of the two women and she is not particularly interested in examining their actions with any degree of criticism. For instance, it is plain that though the Ladies wanted to be free to live in their own way, they also expected and assumed that there would be financial support appropriate to their social station. Gordon places much emphasis on the aristocratic status of the women as which comes over to a modern ear as somewhat obsequious.

The book did however inspire me to delve further and I discovered two books by Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (Viking, 1971) and Life with the Ladies of Llangollen (Viking, 1984). The latter is a fascinating collection journal extracts, arranged to give a flavour of country life from season to season, year on year. I have written a blog post on some of the recipes given for Curiously Creatively, though I haven’t got around to trying any out yet. I would recommend either of Elizabeth Mavor’s two books, as a better way of getting to know Lady Eleanor and Miss Sarah.

Now, back to my reading….

 

Jane Austen: Letters to Cassandra

While continuing to keep up with the A Month of Letters challenge (now successfully completed), I have been browsing the bookshelves to remind myself what letter collections I have tucked away. Possibly one of the most famous letter writers in literary history was Jane Austen, whose main correspondent was her elder sister Cassandra. Perhaps it is more correct to say that, Austen’s letters to her sister have survived, whereas others have been lost (Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death in 1845). After Cassandra’s death, the surviving letters passed to her great niece Fanny Knight and in due course, Fanny’s son published these letters in 1884.Jane Austen Letters

It is a sample of these letters that are published in My Dear Cassandra: Letters to her Sister (selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett). The book is fully illustrated and features notes to contextualise the letters and excerpts from Austen’s fiction. It is a lovely book to own, though I have to confess that I do not remember when or from where I bought my copy. This collection was published as a hardback gift edition for Past Times in 1990 (paperback 1991) and it is clearly not intended to be a comprehensive, scholarly edition. However, as an introduction to Jane Austen, her letters and her world it is an excellent choice. As you start to read, you can see how Austen garnered the material for the novels yet to come. The reader can follow up references for further biographical reading, although this edition pre-dates Claire Tomalin and David Nokes’ biographies of Jane Austen (1997).

As you might suppose, this collection of letters has lain on The Landing TBR Pile for some years, so it is about time that I perused a few of the letters. I did not intend to read straight through, but of course, as the letters are presented chronologically, you read on to find out what happened next, as in any good novel. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the story however, when they didn’t exchange the twice-weekly letters, due to being together. For instance, from 1801- 1805, there is more need of contextual prose in the absence of original letters, to keep the continuity of events flowing. The sisters corresponded when one or other was away on the extended family visits and duties that were common in that period. The one thing that is hard to appreciate is the frequency with which letters were delivered in the 1800s. We think that we are well connected now, but it is amazing to think that you could once have had an evening postal delivery. Back Cover Illustration

The problem with reading someone else’s letters is that you are peeking into to a different life and don’t know the dramatis personae. Add to that, a different century and an alien social milieu and even with the helpful notes (and they can inevitably only go so far) it can be difficult to put flesh on the incidents and people mentioned. Even so, what comes over is that Jane Austen was an observant student of human nature and enjoyed regaling her sister with various goings-on. She clearly had a great affection for family and friends but she enjoyed poking fun at various people.

Sometimes there seems to be a sharp contrast between her mocking of acquaintances, and her affectionate regard for her family. This letter from 1798, has an almost cruel throwaway comment about a neighbour, yet displays doting affection for her three-year-old nephew:

Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.

We are very glad to hear such a good account of your patients, little and great. My dear itty Dordy’s remembrance of me is very pleasing to me – foolishly pleasing, because I know it will be over so soon. My attachment to him will be more durable. I shall think with tenderness and delight on his beautiful and smiling countenance and interesting manners till a few years have turned him into an ungovernable, ungracious fellow.

Her trademark humour is there in the line about the likelihood of the boy growing up much changed, but it is not as barbed as her comment about the bereaved Mrs Hall. I wonder what this woman was to Jane Austen that she felt the need to be so flippant. Maybe however, this was merely misfired humour in a family letter, which would never have seen the light of day if its author had not become famous. In a later letter, Jane Austen writes of how amusing Cassandra’s latest letter was, so I cannot help wishing that I could read it too. I assume that Cassandra’s letters were lost, but I have not researched this yet.

Inside TextTo finish, I will give you a snapshot of Austen’s experience at a dance in 1799, which conjures up vivid impressions of her fictional country balls:

I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it; one’s consequence, you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason. There was one gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good-looking young man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, we never could bring it about.

I wonder whether this young man regretted in later years, that he could not boast of having once danced with the famous author. How does that song go, ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales’ (Herbert Farjeon, 1927).

I definitely have more letters stashed away on The Landing, so perhaps I will have another delve later in the year. I don’t really need the excuse of A Month of Letters to read other people’s letters. Meanwhile, I will have a root around for the subject of my next blog post…

 

Penguin Postcards for ‘A Month of Letters’

Penguin Postcards Box

100 cards to choose from…

Longstanding readers of The Landing will know that February is the time for my contribution to the Month of Letters Challenge (#LetterMo). American writer Mary Robinette Kowal runs the letter writing challenge and you can check out the Month of Letters website for details if you want to jump on board. I have always loved both writing and receiving letters and I am also a great hoarder of letters. I have stopped throwing old letters out in a fit of spring-cleaning, as I have discovered that that way lies regret. I used to have a French pen friend when I was at school (though I don’t think the relationship lasted for long) and I wish I still had the letters. The Bookworm recently asked if she could read some of the letters between me and my school friends (just think, we actually used to write to each other in the summer holidays, how quaint was that!) The nice thing is that I have letters going back for many years, from people with whom I am still in contact. What will people do in the future when they want to have a burst of nostalgia? Comb through their email archive I suppose. Methinks it hardly sounds like an enticing prospect. It did occur to me that I should have my own mini challenge to re-read an old letter on every day of the month, but I think after all that I will just stick to writing to people in February. Maybe I will save re-reading letters for the dark, chilly November evenings by the fireside.

This year, by way of a change I have decided to write postcards for everyone, from my lovely box of Penguin book jacket postcards. My original aim was to try to match a person to a book postcard, but I’m not sure how realistic that will be to manage. So far, I think I have done reasonably well matching two friends who like gardening and cooking respectively, with an appropriate choice of book title. I also despatched an art-themed postcard to a creative artist friend, so far so good. Ideally, I would like to match each recipient with a favourite author, book, genre or topic as far as possible. However, I have been through the box a few times now and I have discovered that some book titles might be difficult to place with a home. I suggest Scootering: a Penguin Handbook or Common Sense about Smoking: a Penguin Special as uncommon choices for uncommon readers. On the fiction front while Orange PenguinsA Severed Head (Iris Murdoch) and Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh) are fine as books, would you choose to send them as a postcard design unless you were sure of a good reception?

Penguin Postcards Selection

I’ll never use all of them…

I will write an update on my progress with the book title/matching process in a few days. Meanwhile I might delve into depths of The Landing and see what I have unread in the way of collected letters. I think I may have mentioned before that I enjoy reading other people’s letters…all above board, of course…

Yes, We Have No Oranges (Nor Bananas)…

Last year author Juliet Greenwood (We That Are left, Honno Press)) wrote a guest blog post on the topic of producing and preparing food for the Home Front during the First World War. In her novel, the main protagonist, Elin goes back to her mother’s old recipe book to help her produce nutritious recipes for wartime. Recipes from the period were reproduced at the end of the book, some of which you can find on Juliet’s guest post. I have gradually tried out Juliet’s recipes, most recently the seed cake, which I have blogged about over on Curiously Creatively this week. It was most delicious!

Few Eggs and No Oranges

Reprinted edition

As Juliet pointed out at the time, rationing only came about towards the end of World War I, and lessons learned from this conflict influenced rationing decisions in the Second World War. I was reminded of this when I was browsing recently in Hodges Figgis and spotted a reprint of a Second World War diary. Few Oranges and No Eggs (Persephone, 1991, 2010) was the work of Birmingham born Vere Hodgson (1901-1979) who began work in London in 1935 and stayed there throughout the war. She worked for the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association in a welfare role and helped to produce the association’s newspaper. The office was in a house (named The Sanctuary) in Lansdowne Road and Vere lived nearby in Ladbrooke Road, though she often spent the nights of The Blitz at The Sanctuary taking a turn on fire watch duty. Although the diary entries continue until VE Day, I have just quoted from the early part of the book to give you some idea of Vere’s life. The diary actually began life as letters sent around to family members and then posted out to a cousin in Rhodesia. Only one batch of letters ever got lost en route. Not bad for a war-time postal service!

As the book’s title suggests, one of the major preoccupations of the author was obtaining food during the lean years of the war. On 9th July 1940, Vere Hodgson was recording that “We are to have six ounces of butter cum margarine, and two ounces of cooking fat” and on 16th July she was writing of the shortage of eggs in London, declaring, “I shall have to switch over to baked beans”.   Rationing restrictions changed over the years, but began in January 1940 with bacon, butter and sugar. Later, several other food products were added to the rationed list and supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were limited, though not rationed. Tinned products were un-rationed but you needed points to buy the food. The chart I have included (taken from Wikipedia) will give some idea of the range of weekly rationing, from lowest to highest. Not on the chart are eggs (one per week) and milk (3 pints per week). There were increased milk rations for children, pregnant women and invalids and oranges, when available were usually only for children or pregnant women.

World War II Rations

Ration Chart

Vere’s observations marked the daily difficulties of obtaining scarce supplies and the alteration in the rations. Despite fruit not being rationed, imported fruits such as bananas and oranges were obviously hard to come by at all. Prices of homegrown produce varied a great deal as this entry from February 1941 shows, “Bought a pound of apples yesterday for one shilling…what a price. No oranges at all, at all. Very annoying.”  Later that month she notes that the cheese rationing will probably amount to a one inch cube per week. At that point, it was immaterial as none was available in her area anyway.

One of the effects of rationing and shortages appeared to be that people craved that which they would not ordinarily have eaten, such as in this case, onions. “Mr Booker was saying that though he hates onions, when once more we can get them he will sit down and really enjoy one. I think we shall go in for onion binges when the war is over”. (16th February 1941) I have a vision of Vere tucking into endless plates of fried onions after the war. In many entries such as this one, Vere displays that sense of humour and stoicism that enabled many people to carry on despite the shortages. I will just finish with this excerpt from 22nd February 1941, which details the proceeds of a shopping expedition:

Managed to get a few eating apples yesterday to my great joy. I treated myself – they are one shilling and one penny per pound. I carried them home as if they were the Crown Jewels. Also had some luck over cheese. Went for my bacon ration and while cutting it had a word with the man about the Cubic Inch of Cheese. He got rid of the other customers and then whispered, ‘Wait a mo’.’ I found half a pound of cheese being thrust into my bag with great secrecy and speed!

Then going to the Dairy for my butter ration I was given four eggs and a quarter of cheese! Had no compunction in taking it, for I went straight to my Mercury Cafe and gave it to them….they had said they did not think they could open the next day as they had no meat and only a morsel of cheese. I could not resist, when I got in, cutting off a hunk of my piece and eating it there and then. I always sympathised with Ben Gunn when he dreamed of toasted cheese on that desert island.

If you’ve never come across this diary, I recommend it for the day-to-day picture of war-time life. The experiences are particular to one educated, middle class woman but it does give you a vivid picture of what life must have like for Londoners and Brummies in all walks of life as they coped with the destruction and privation on the Home Front. This is one book that I am sure I will dip into again and again. Vere Hodgson’s voice is lively and compassionate; her conscientious recording of all that happens draws the reader into her world.

I have also written a piece for Headstuff if you would like to read it too: http://www.headstuff.org/2015/05/exploring-a-wartime-diarist-vere-hodgson/

Until next time!

Month of Letters Update

I have written about tackling the February ‘Month of Letters’ challenge before on The Landing and on Writing.ie, so I thought that I would give you a progress report on my 2015 attempt. As usual, I began writing enthusiastically, but this time around, I entered a sort of sluggish phase part way into the month. The original rules of the challenge state that you don’t have to post on Sundays (nor, as the challenge was set by an American writer, on February 16 for President’s Day). On my first couple of attempts, I was enthusiastic enough to include Sundays (despite there being no mail collection on Sunday in Ireland) but this year I have observed the breaks and I feel slightly lazy for having done so. As I ignore the US Public Holiday, that means posting twenty-four items during February.

Card from Claire

Note from Claire

Missing the Sunday letter meant that I despatched my first mailing on 2 February – so far so good. I began the month with a list of possible suspects (in no particular order) and worked from that as the days went on. Originally I had conceived the idea of putting names of possible recipients into a hat and drawing one each day. I thought this would be great way to add a nice element of serendipity to the proceedings. Sadly, it was not to be due to my unfortunate inefficiency. Therefore, I am still working from the list but trying to maintain an air of randomness by not following the list in order. The down side to this is that I have noticed a distressing tendency to do the ‘soft options’ first. In other words, the people I see the most often and to whom I therefore wouldn’t send a long letter, but perhaps only a postcard or note.

Of course I worry that someone will think, ‘Hang on a minute, how come I am not getting a letter until the 23rd? Does this mean that I’m not as important as 22 other people?’ or words to that effect. Maybe I just worry too much. After all, as I write this blog post I am aware that I have yet to post a letter to one of my sisters but I don’t think she’s likely to take offence at that (I hope). Some folks do actually end up getting more than one billet doux as the challenge rules stipulate that you must reply to every letter received. If you really get into the spirit and rhythm of the challenge then there is no reason to post only one item a day. I could post two, three or even more.

As February moves on to meet the March lamb (or lion) I am feeling pleased that I have kept my pen diligently moving. I might even have a last minute flurry of scribbling to squeeze in a few extra people. As usual, I have factored in my dad’s birthday and my parent’s anniversary. I was probing my conscience as to whether I can claim dad’s birthday present as an item posted when I have already counted his card in. It seems rather sharp practice to me, so I might have to reprimand myself. As in previous years, I have been delighted when my recipients have responded in kind. I have scanned in a couple of replies, including Teri Farrell’s postcard with her original artwork. One to frame I think.

Daffodil from Teri

Daffodil from Teri

I am already thinking about how to make next year’s challenge a little bit different from previous years. The author of the challenge Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that you don’t have to actually send a letter, but something else such as a swatch of fabric as a keepsake. I like that idea, so perhaps I will collect miscellaneous items during the year and then decide whom to send them to next February. And as next year will be a leap year then it would be a great way to do something a little different.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the letter writing for 2015. Has anyone else been participating in Month of Letters?

V.S.Naipaul’s Family Letters

I’ve actually still not begun to read my latest Landing Eight novel due to being drawn to dipping into a volume of letters between V.S (Vido) Naipaul and his father Seepersad (addressed as ‘Pa’). The collection is entitled Letters Between a Father and Son and was first published in 1999, more than twenty years after In a Free State. The bulk of the letters in this collection were written when Naipaul left Trinidad in 1950 to take up a place at Oxford.  The volume does also contain letters written to and from Naipaul’s elder sister Kamla so the title is slightly misleading. Sadly, Seepersad died in October 1953 while Naipaul was still in England, having acquired his BA in July of that year. The collection closes with letters charting Naipaul’s first major literary success.

Letters Between a Father and Son

Family letters

As readers of this blog will know, I love reading letters and diaries so when my other half drew my attention to this collection I was happy to be distracted. In an age of email, Skype and Facebook it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to leave your family behind and travel to a completely new country and just to have to rely on weekly or fortnightly letters for news. The collection begins with letters between Vido and Kamla, as she was the first to leave home, travelling to India to study. In the first letter, Vido describes to Kamla his efforts to organise his university application photographs, not being at all satisfied with the results: ‘I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University people, but look what they have got. And I even paid two dollars for a re-touched picture’. 

After this humorous comment, Naipaul goes on to discuss his recent reading material, earning my profound disapproval by being extremely dismissive of Jane Austen’s writing. I had previously come across a reference to a speech that Naipaul made in 2011 in which he claimed that women writers (Austen included) were not the equal of men (and certainly not equal to him). This opinion clearly goes back some years as he seemed to have formed it at the tender age of seventeen and never revised it, saying then, ‘if she had lived in our age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women’s papers’.  Rather damming I must say, though I assume he meant that at the very least, Austen would have written for a superior sort of women’s paper since even he admitted that ‘her diction was fine, of course’.

I have read contradictory opinions on Naipaul’s character, beliefs and attitudes as well as references to a whole slew of literary spats. If that’s not enough, you can also become embroiled in the question of his behaviour towards women.Without being familiar with his novels, non-fiction or life story, I’m not yet in a position to offer any comment other than to reflect upon what I have gleaned from the letters. Having reached the point at which Vido is a year or so into his studies, I’ve become much more attracted to Seepersad’s personality, both as a person and as a father offering help and advice. Seepersad at this point is working for the Trinidad Guardian and regularly offers wise advice on writing, studying and coping with life at Oxford, ‘Sometimes in our very loneliness you will produce that which will be something new and which you otherwise could not produce. Spot your drones and microbes among your fellow-creatures, but do not let them put you out of your centre [….] meanwhile be a man and cringe to none’.

I was intending merely to skim this collection of letters, but I have found myself reading on and following Naipaul’s early career as well as Kamla’s experiences in India and those of various family members who regularly pop up in the correspondence. I would like to know more about their mother, Droapatie Capildeo but so far, having reached January 1952 she remains (though clearly loved) very much a secondary figure. In one letter to Kamla in 1951, Vido writes ‘She is worthy of all we can give. We oughtn’t to disappoint her. She is the type who suffers in silence, poor dear! I love her; but who has shaped my live [sic], my views, my tastes? Pa.’ This sentiment seems rather sad, loving with faint praise, as it were. But maybe the picture will change further on. Perhaps the letters will shed also some light upon his views of the opposite sex in general. I will read on.

Meanwhile, as a Naipaul novice I would be interested in your thoughts. Till next time…