Fireside Reading: it’s that time of Year!

by Ruth Badley, and by Barbara Kingsolver

This review tries to cover the latest two books I’ve read recently: Where are the Grown-ups and Unsettled. They’re very much not a pair, so don’t expect one to cover both memoir and the challenges of change…

Interestingly, I love both these books – which are very different– but disagreed with a great deal of what others have said about them. Admittedly, these others were the people who had put reviews on Amazon and, often, possibly usually, very personal opinions.

As are mine of course, but here is how I saw the books. Where are the Grown-ups? is a memoir, the author’s first full-length work. Ruth Badley, from an East End Jewish background, tracks back through her own childhood, then investigate her mother’s upbringing as she seeks to understand her relationship with, and experience of, her mum.

Kingsolver, an experienced novelist (The Poisonwood Bible is possibly her most widely known book), has largely created her characters, though Mary Treat, a woman naturalist and scientist, is a real historical figure. She both conducted experiments and corresponded with the most influential scientist and original thinker of the day, Charles Darwin and others in the field.

Commendations for Badley’s book were totally five-star, emphasising poignancy and evocations of the East End in the early 20th century. Kingsolver’s book had every kind of review from “boring” (too much science and too little plot ), to mentioning the authors “skill in creating plausible worlds… and making us interested in the minutiae of their lives”.

So, to my reactions. I enjoyed Badley’s book, partly I suspect because it resonated with my own childhood. Both she and I grew up in London suburbia around the same time, and had grandparents and great aunts who’d spent their growing years far further into London. Her mother, I soon discovered, had quite something in common with my mother-in-law so, before we reached descriptions of the circumstances which forced that personality and the mother/daughter conflict, I had anticipated what proved to be a good part of the root cause. The book, though a memoir, is quite a sociological journey of family history. Its poignancy is repeated in many different families where present-day health care and changes in public attitudes might have alleviated the problems. The most telling quotation is probably this: “(My mum) was the needy one in our family, the one who’s mood could suddenly change, the one that must be considered, deferred to, and placated or else Dad would get a tongue lashing.” The consequences of how her mother’s childhood emotional neglect impacted on the young Ruth are clearly here. Despite meticulous physical care from a foster mother (her great aunt), whose ambition was that the child lacked for nothing and learned to behave right, her Mum grew up damaged by her lack of warmth. More emerges as we learn about her mother’s paternal backstory, and put all this together with Badley’s own demons as a young adult. 

Character drawing and development was less necessary in a memoir than a novel, but skill has been used to make family stories and further research come alive in lively scenes which evoke the era of a late 20th century childhood and earlier times in the bustling East End of London.

Kingsolver’s satisfyingly fat paperback is very different, although we  do meet some of the same problems. People who have become used to material goods but overlook the value of relationship, both to others and to the wider natural world, ignore nature to their cost. Her intention here, revealed in the title ” Unsheltered” is to draw parallels between the Darwinian crisis of the 1870s and the climate crisis of today. Drawing parallels of deliberate ignoring or disputing of any proof in new scientific revelations, she also uses a degree of “magic realism” in the ruinous state of the houses which her characters inhabit. These houses are on the same plot of ground, a speculative development in southern New Jersey. Neither house offers shelter from the elements, and they spend the entire book falling into complete disrepair. As does the marriage of Thatcher Greenwood and his wife Rose in the 1870s, under threat from his determination to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution in a town which prefers to firmly stick to a creationist theology. In the 21st-century Vineland, the Tavoularis family, headed by Iano, a college lecturer, whose parents emigrated from Greece, Millennial daughter Tig represents support for a more gentle, earth-acknowledging lifestyle, while her brother Zeke is taken up with his financial dealings and ignoring his infant son. Bringing these two narratives together, Kingsolver uses history, the person of Mary Treat, abandoned wife and forward-looking amateur scientist, extremely effectively I feel, while incidentally swiping at the American “healthcare” system. Government attitudes from the Victorians to the present day are shown not to have changed,as Mary observes (page 231) “When men feel the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order”

Debate and discussion there certainly is, and the characters could possibly be further developed but the study of human character is less important here that the overall message of the interwoven stories, and characters are sufficiently drawn to be thoroughly credible. Kingsolver concentrates on demonstrating the consistency of people who prefer clinging to the past to interacting with what is becoming the future and adapting accordingly. Indeed the reaction of the 21st century to climate change ironically denies that they ever accepted Darwin’s theory of adaptation and evolution and demonstrates the reluctance of Western civilisation to make changes which will become necessary to ensure survival.

Both books are also available as e-books

You may’ve read my novels – but have you tried my poetry? Live, Lose, Learn by Mari Howard, available direct from Hodge (see website ‘Books’)

Self Portrait

by Celia Paul

Mari HowardNovember 28, 2019

I love this book, and began reading it avidly the day it arrived. Celia Paul is an artist, a painter, and, as the book documents, we learn what it can be like when creativity is the driver in your life. 

“You need to give yourself completely, while at the same time seeing things from a distance” she writes (prologue page 7) “…every important creative act has this duality of giving everything and then of letting go, so that the creative work can have a life of its own.”

And her son Frank, also painter, writes (also page 7) that “isolation is important both to my mum’s work and to her peace of mind… yet she feels separation keenly, as well as a deep guilt that her need for solitude precludes her from being as hospitable as she would like to be.”

That second quote is something I can’t deal with, the desire for so much solitude. Indeed the word gives me a frisson. Yet I know many many artists and other creatives crave solitude. They must crave it as I crave time – the fate of creatives is to never have time (unless they are also good at finding and tolerating space to be alone). As the author herself says (page 198) “My flat in sacrosanct. No one can enter without my permission.”

Born in India in 1959 to parents who could be described as “missionaries” (her father headed a theological college for many years) Celia Paul is the fourth of five sisters. And her family is important to her. Many of her paintings are portraits of family, especially at first of her mother, and later of her sisters, particularly her younger sister Kate.

Her talent was discerned by her art teacher at boarding school, and she was referred to the well-known Slade School in London. They accepted her at the age of 16, when she moved to London and so to the more adult and independent life of a student at a young age. Lucian Freud was a visiting tutor at the time, and soon she became romantically involved with him.

The book, produced attractively and to the standard of an exhibition catalogue, with excellent reproductions, reveals through her paintings that her style has been much influenced by Freud’s work. And in the light of present day thinking, I cannot not feel and comment that it seems this relationship was one of groomer and groomed. Freud was already middle-aged and Celia Paul not yet 20. Her emotional relationship (indeed dependence?) on Fried runs through the book, and is clearly giving her as much grief as happiness. But again, this is not unusual in creative lives. Though a reviewer (Jan Daley, Financial Times) has noted that the book tells “A story of obsession and manipulation that sends our feelings on a rollercoaster… [Self-Portrait] turns into a sort of myth about the misuse of fame and the male ego, about the struggles faced by creative women…” I feel this may well be true, though Paul still accepts that she went willingly. Her attachment to her mother also continues, with Mother happy to pose both clothed and nude for her daughter. And when Frank, her grandson, is born (Freud is his father) Paul’s mother willingly took over raising him as his primary carer, in order that her daughter could continue painting. She was living alone in her studio flat (bought for her by Freud in 1982), Mother travelling to London for sittings and daughter to Cambridge to visit her son at weekends.

She writes herself about the relationship, she feels now that “I was emotionally dependent on him to begin with, but I became more independent as I became sure of my own talents and direction as an artist. My attraction to the juxtaposition of the mystical with direct observation is so different from Lucian’s approach.” Although not overtly religious, Celia Paul’s background, her father priest and as adults one of her sisters a theologian (and wife to Archbishop Rowan Williams) and one ordained as a priest, and her mother’s fondness to use settings for paintings as an opportunity for prayer, suggest a strong influence towards some kind of mysticism if not belief from within the family.

After her relationship with Freud was over (she decided to break with him in 1988, though he remained a close friend until his death in 2011), Celia Paul’s paintings undergo change. The meditative, dark and rather sombre paintings, often of women (her mother, her sisters especially Kate) give way to more abstract work: seascapes, and London landscapes. She writes about not knowing where to go, and finding an means of expression from the sea. These works, maybe, are a charting of grief for the loss of both her lover and her mother. Indeed she paints her four sisters together, in a work entitled My Sisters in Mourning. I wonder if, and when, she may return to the human figure, if at all.

So what captivated me about this memoir? It is definitely the way that Self Portrait reveals a personality which feels familiar, which recalls art students I knew at University, friends who have made Fine Art or writing their career, and whose lives are driven not by the desire for success in monetary terms but in achieving the actualisation of inner concepts and ideas. Sometimes to the detriment of family, health, social life, the opinions of others. It is entirely understandable. It can be frustrating. It can appear selfish in extreme. It can wreck marriages. But it is strong, genuine, and irremovable. I wouldn’t like to call it an “artistic personality”– it’s bigger, deeper, more compelling, than an “-istic”. It is deviant from the tidiness of “neuro typical” organised life. Whether it is selfish or not depends on what we value – it is the personality which gives us music, poetry, novels, artefacts and paintings which enrich our lives, and its constraints are inbuilt and necessary. It also often involves unwise liasons, obsessions, grief and troubled minds. Art, of all kinds, is never a quick or easy fix.