D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, and critic, is one of my favorite writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003, and his elegant counterfactual novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.
But you all know that. I have written about it before. Anyway, here is an announcement: several of his books have been reissued as e-books by Open Road Media. The three aforementioned are available, as are several of his earlier books, including the novels Real Life, English Settlement, Great Eastern Land, The Comedy Man, and Trespass; a biography of Thackeray; and a collection of stories, After Bathing at Baxter’s.
I have yet to read his early books, but I did like his 1999 novel, Trespass, which pays homage to H. G. Wells’s delightful satire, Tono-Bungay. Tono-Bungay, invented by the hero’s uncle, is a harmless concoction sold as a pep drink through brilliant advertising. (I wrote about Wells’ book at my old blog.) Taylor nods to the brilliance of Wells in his comical story of the rise and fall of George Chell, whose life has been nomadic since his eccentric entrepreneur uncle was ruined by a financial crash six years ago. As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.”
And, by the way, Taylor’s new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck, was published last winter by Beggar Galley Press, a small press in the UK. It is not available in the U.S., but you can find used copies on the internet.
Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage. Years ago an archaeologist friend recommended Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, a novel whose heroine, Frances Wingate, is an archaeologist. This became one of my favorite books, and when I reread it nowadays, Frances reminds me slightly of the classicist Mary Beard.
I have read Drabble’s books multiple times. Not, however, her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which was published in 1962. When I went back to it recently, I had mixed feelings. Much of it is delightful, but it is also a bit dated.
It is a strange little comedy. Sarah, the witty, thoughtful narrator, has been teaching English conversation in Paris. She is going home for her older sister Louise’s wedding. She doesn’t like Louise, who is beautiful, snobbish, moody, and often unkind. Yet Sarah, who has recently graduated from Oxford, has had enough of Paris, and doesn’t know what to do next.
Sarah’s voice is charming and comical.
I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris. I had gone there immediately after coming home from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time. To fill in time till what? What indeed? It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me. It didn’t get me anywhere.
I read this in graduate school, and we all chortled over it. Would we ever have jobs? We found Drabble hilarious. But one of my friends, who was going on for a Ph.D., thought A Summer Bird-Cage was anti-feminist.
I wouldn’t go that far, but today Sarah’s scorn of “academic women” seems a little jarring.
When her roommate says parties are tiresome, Sarah thinks,
As she said that, I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic. I didn’t like what I saw…
Oh, dear. I do know what she means. I used to think my women professors were hired because of their eccentricities and lack of style. I long ago repented of that view, but perhaps this is simply how the young think.
I still find Sarah’s lack of direction vaguely charming, because women’s personal lives are often more important than their jobs. But the novel is not just about Sarah’s youthful squandering of time. It is also about her love-hate relationship with her doppelganger, Louise, who is fashionable, brilliant, and beautiful, but really quite disagreeable. Louise snubs her guests, and when Sarah points out that Louise is wearing a dirty bra under her wedding gown, she doesn’t care. She goes off joylessly to Italy with her unlikable, but very rich, writer husband. Her reasons for marrying him? You’ll find out. She is blatantly having an affair with his best friend, an actor.
Meanwhile, Sarah moves to London with Gill, an artist friend, and gets a job at the BBC. The job means nothing to her: she is more interested in parties. She is observant and witty and vaguely looks forward to marrying her old boyfriend, who is at Harvard. She doesn’t know quite else what to do.
But we finally learn that Sarah isn’t without direction: she hopes one day to write a novel as funny as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. And we know Drabble succeeds.
In general I prefer Drabble’s later novels, but if you want to read a great ’60s comedy, try Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The scholarly heroine, Rosamund, approves of the sexual revolution, but she hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her academic research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant. She decides to raise the baby on her ow,. This slight book is comical, moving, and beautifully written.