Archive for April, 2018

Larchfield by Polly Clark

LFThis novel about loneliness, unacceptance, survival, outsiders and creativity was inspired by the author’s own plight when she moved to Helensburgh in Scotland and found a connection with Auden that was to change her life. It evokes a small community as claustrophobic and inhibiting as the characters themselves. Helensburgh, (“the Wimbledon of the north”, according to Cecil Day-Lewis), is portrayed as a town where curtains twitch and ‘outsiders’ are treated with suspicion.

Post natal depression is described well.

Child abuse lurks.

The relationship with difficult neighbours was vividly described and many could relate to that from their own experience.

Helensburgh is not as self-contained as the novel suggests: many commute to Glasgow. The local paper opined: The sad thing is that there is some decent writing here. A novel solely about a premature child and post-natal depression in a strange West Coast town might have been fine. A non-fiction book about a curious period in the life of Auden would have been interesting. Together, they are not. There is also a sour undercurrent. Dora’s dastardly neighbours are, of course, churchgoers. They are, of course, hypocrites. This presumption that the Kirk is a crucible of sourness is, in my experience, neither true nor fair. I doubt very much indeed if she would have written this novel with the nasty upstairs neighbours being of Islamic or Jewish faith.

A good read, well-written, said members. Beautiful language.

She took a risk when merging the two different times and characters.

One member said that the breakdown scene was so vivid that he had to stop reading.

“You seem awfully nice in person” Wystan is told at one party, “and I’m sure your next book will be much better”). There are moments of escape, and we follow him there too – to brief holidays with his Christopher Isherwood where he makes the most of the soon-to-vanish freedom of Berlin’s gay clubs, and into a love affair with a working-class lad back in Scotland.

 According to one critic: Barely a page goes by without some stale and threadbare language. Shocking is usually “deeply”; people hiss instead of whisper, the baby perpetually gurgles, cuts are always deep. Nobody speaks like a human being, not even the kind of human beings that inhabit soi-disant and pseudo-literary novels – “Jamie! Thank you ! I mustn’t be stung by a wasp. Dr Boyce said it could make me very ill indeed.” This is twinned with a kind of needless poeticism: “a nest of wire and tubes” referring to a complicated cot; “one creature-combination of mother and baby” to describe the simple act of holding a child. It also must be the winner of my novel of the year to overuse italics.

The author:

Clark is the literature director of Cove Park, a writer’s retreat near Helensburgh, where she has lived for the last four years, as well as in the surrounding area for a further seven. Ever since she arrived – like Dora and Auden, from Oxford, where she had worked for a publisher –  she had known about Helensburgh’s Auden connection, that the poet had taught at Larchfield for a couple of years and that his first major collection, The Orators, was written while he taught there. Her daughter is a pupil at Lomond School, which is on the site of Larchfield. “Although the building in which Auden lived while he was there has been converted to flats, the façade is exactly the same, and in the photographs I’ve got of him with the boys, the background hasn’t changed. Helensburgh hasn’t altered too much either. I really didn’t need that much imagination.”

“This was such a formative time in his life,” she says, “yet nobody has really written about him in Helensburgh. But I didn’t want to write a biography, so for years I didn’t have any kind of hook on which to hang my knowledge of him. I used to wish it had been a completely different poet, someone I could relate to more – like Ted Hughes, say – because I didn’t think I had anything in common with Auden. He’s posh, he’s gay, I didn’t like his work so much – though I do now. I just didn’t see any connection.”

“Then I realised we had everything in common. We were both outsiders. Neither of us could be ourselves any more, we were both hiding who we are.”  Or, as she explains on the proof (though not the finished) copy of the novel: “I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went. I couldn’t drive and became very isolated. When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read Auden’s The Orators. And its poems changed my life.”

 Quotations:

“His arms are huge, the arms of an ape, and he’s lighting a cigarette as he gets settled for the journey from Oxford to Glasgow. ……His left ear sticks out, the remains of the schoolboy. The impression made is one of pale, large fragility. It isn’t until he looks up that his attractiveness becomes apparent.”

“He does not know that he will be more alone than he has ever been, that he will love more deeply than he ever thought possible – and he will long for the consolations that poetry cannot give, at least not to the writer.”
“hammering the piano, her broad shoulders moving volubly beneath her navy jacket”

“His mother needed a quite different sort of partner, a Latin Lothario who would have dominated her and treated her badly but ravishingly; his father needed someone simple and happy, who could be satisfied.”

“Ma should have married a robust Italian who was very sexy … Pa should have married someone weaker than he and utterly devoted to him. But of course, if they had, I shouldn’t be here.”

“‘Do you know about poetry, Mr Wallace?’
‘I know enough to know that rugby is more important.'”
“A hotel? [the nurse] repeated, almost wonderingly, looking at Dora anew, as if perhaps she were Oliver Twist and had said, Please sir, can I have some more?”

“The mothers lining the walls raised their drooping heads like desiccated flowers suddenly given a drink. Dora hauled herself across the room, just a step ahead of the silence cresting behind her.”
“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

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Golden Boy – ABIGAIL TARTTELIN

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is her second book. It was described as a “dazzling debut” by Oprah’s Book Club. Published in 2013, the book has rapidly been translated into numerous languages and saw the author listed amongst the Evening Standard’s “25 people under 25.

It’s about an intersex teenager and, as such, is rare. There’s a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story

I now understand why some politicians want more time to spend with their family.

It’s accessible; written in a popular style and I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happened next. It’s written for the mainstream, no for some minority audience.

All families have secrets. The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other. When a childhood friend abuses his trust in a horrific way, the family starts to unravel and, ultimately, seek to try to come to terms with its secrets.

Golden Boy won a 2014 American Library Association ALEX Award for Best Adult Books For Teen Readers and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA award for debut LGBT fiction!

But, after all that football, how did max cope in the changing rooms?

I liked the multiple narrators, seeing the characters through their own eyes and those of other people, and how they appear differently in each.

Tarttelin has described how she explores intersex to look at gender roles, expressing the view that, “I don’t particularly think men and women are very different”. In discussion with Interview Magazine, Tarttelin comments that gender is arbitrary, but “a lot of it is socially constructed”. She is concerned that some mainstream analysis of trans children exhibits a narrow world view and limited expectations of gender roles. Nevertheless, she argues that gender determines “whether you are physically intimidating vs. being physically intimidated”. Interviewed at Goodreads, Tarttelin says, “I could explore gender through the eyes of someone who had no need to define themselves as either male or female, but was pressured to do so by their family and community”. She deliberately placed her protagonist within an “‘average’ community and a loving family”, saying, “I often feel characters with alternative genders and sexualities are treated as outsiders in art, when in fact they are us, and they belong inside our communities. I wanted Golden Boy to take place in a town that readers could see as their own town”.[

 Fundamentally, autonomy is the issue at the heart of this book, rather than intersexuality

I wondered how true to life this was and then discovered that Golden Boy has also been well received by intersex audiences. The director of Intersex Campaign for Equality, describes the book as a “thoroughly engrossing novel with a pioneering perspective … The novel explores heavy, complex these with a disarming wholesomeness that elicits nostalgia for the novels of adolescence, making it a perfect fit for teen readers as well as adults.

Karen, a career-oriented lawyer whose self-conscious attitude especially toward outward appearances and the paranoia of what others may or may not think, compel her to be instinctively unhappy and controlling.

Steven, a moral and understanding father, yet busy lawyer whose active ambition tears him away from the knowledge and experience of his children’s emotional turmoil.

Max, an attractive, intelligent, athletic, obedient, and favoured all-star both amongst his peers and his family, is the center of the story’s narrative and the Golden Boy in which the book is named.

Daniel, Max’s highly intelligent, younger brother is an inquisitive, creative, but often overlooked little boy whose avid love for robots and video games affords him an escape from his mother’s critical eye.

Sylvie, a quirky and independent-thinking, social outcast befriends Max in a special way that essentially shows him a window to acceptance and love.

Hunter, Max’s childhood friend not only knows Max’s secret, but abuses it, which catapults and endangers their relationship to a complex level.

And Archie, a doctor who inherits the knowledge of Max’s crisis who learns to be an active advocate on his behalf and possibly others like him.

Interview with Author:

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis https://zaraalexis.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/book-review-and-author-interview-the-golden-boy-by-abigail-tarttelin/

  1. The subject of gender is a complicated one. What made you decide to write a book about the intersex experience?

I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on their womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could highlight how gender makes a huge difference in our experience of the world, particularly in terms of our physical vulnerability and social expectations of how we should behave. In researching intersexuality, I came to understand that conditions that weren’t life threatening were being treated as such. I was particularly perturbed by statistics and stories about the loss of fertility and sensation experienced by individuals following operations on intersex children, and the parallel between this and the way women today disregard their own comfort to perform painful rituals to maintain their beauty and acceptability in society.

  1. What do you think is most challenging personally and socially for an individual who is intersex?

Society’s preconceptions and constructions surrounding gender force intersex individuals to make choices for the benefit of acceptance and not their physical health. In the case of Golden Boy, Max feels so much pressure from so many people to conform to these standards, but these standards are arbitrary and Max is a healthy individual. I do think standards are changing, and on blogs like Tumblr, there are certain courageous young people choosing or inventing their own gender labels, or deciding not to label themselves at all.

  1. How can people help in better supporting an individual who is intersex to ease those challenges?

Finding an online community like Tumblr where people can explore how to be, while remaining as anonymous as they like, could be really helpful in the case of intersex individuals. I think meeting people of any  ‘non-binary’ gender identity would help to realise that they are plenty of ‘different’ people in the world, and at the same time aiming to break down stereotypical gender roles within your community and household, so that there weren’t these strange, arbitrary lines drawn between us, would be beneficial to intersex people as well as women, men and LGBTQIA people in general.

  1. Do you think gender is more influenced by genetics, or an individual’s environment, or both?

I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love with a member of the same gender. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but ‘gender’ itself is a human invention, a word we use to define the difficult to define, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bi’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ and ‘intersex’ are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.

  1. The character, Max, in your book wasn’t told the details of his intersex genetic makeup, nor was his intersex spoken about or addressed by his family, and this seemed to be a crucial mistake in raising him since he had to deal with many unanswered questions about his gender growing up. How does a parent of a child who is intersex raise him/her in a healthy environment without imposing gender upon his/her child until which point the child may identify him/herself as a boy, girl, both, or neither?

To be honest, I think parents of children of all genders – intersex, female, male etc. – should attempt to bring them up neutrally with regards to gender. This is such a hard thing to do, particularly when there are many outside influences on children, and I applaud any parent who is making that really courageous and fairly self-sacrificial attempt. I think it’s important to read up on the subject to make yourself aware of how, for instance, toys are marketed in a gender-specific way, or girls are expected to be less rambunctious than male children, and how meek or fearful behaviour in a boy is often punished, but accepted in a girl. I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind the Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.

***

  1. You included statistics on intersex in your book. What is the ratio of individuals in the UK/Canada who identify themselves as men? As women?

I am not personally aware of a study that demonstrates the ratio of individuals who identify as male or female in Canada or the States. But if you find one, I’d love to be!

  1. Can babies who are conceived by individuals who are intersex, come to full-term and survive?

Not in every circumstance, but sometimes yes. For years intersex individuals were widely regarded as infertile by the medical community but, although certain conditions like CAH require immediate treatment to save the life of the baby, it is now known that intersex individuals can be fertile and thought that infertility in the past might have often been due to operations on the genitals at birth.

  1. Is it more likely for an individual who is intersex to have a baby who is also intersex?

Not that I’m aware. The rate of certain conditions is higher in some populations than others, but certainly not every intersex condition is passed down from a parent. As I understand it from my research, it is more likely for an intersex baby to be born to a female-male parental partnership, and for a female or male baby to be born from an intersex parent, than the alternative.

  1. Of all the characters in your book, who is your favourite one? Your least favourite one? Which character in your book was your favourite one to write?

Max is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Sylvie too. They are both heroes in my book. The Daniel/Max scenes were probably the most fun to write, but Max was certainly the most interesting character to be inside. I don’t hate anybody in the book, I try to present all characters – even the ‘bad guys’ – ambiguously.

  1. Of all the characters you have created, who do you believe is most like you?

There are aspects of me in every character in Golden Boy, but I’m probably most like Max and Sylvie. A little less bold than Sylvie, and a little more insistent than Max.

  1. What first inspired you to become a writer?

Everything inspires me to write. Writing is a compulsion for me and I can’t stop!

  1. Who are your favourite authors? Which authors do you think have greatly influenced your work?

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my English teacher gave me a copy of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, and I realised that I could write about anything, literally anything. Until then I had just read the classics, and although I love them, they didn’t show me that contemporary culture was an acceptable topic for a novel. I don’t have specific favourite authors, but one of my favourite books is The Good Women of China by Xinran.

***

  1. What are your top three favourite books?

I couldn’t choose three! I think the point of books is to read hundreds. Three of my favourites are The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Just Kids by Patti Smith.

***

  1. What book are you reading right now?

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani. It’s phenomenal, and because we share the same US and UK editors, I know Sahar and she is SO lovely, so for both these reasons, I recommend people read her book.

***

  1. What does your working schedule look like? What is your writing process like?

Right now it’s crazy, because we are in the run up to publication and at the London Book Fair so I am getting my website up, meeting my publishers, doing reading events – which I love! When I am writing, I switch that world off. When I am beginning a novel, the writing comes in dribs and drabs. When I reach 21,000 words (my tipping point), I run away from society and write for five to six hours non-stop every day to get the first draft done. Usually this takes about a month.

  1. What are you working on right now? If you’re working on a second novel, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My second novel has to be in to my publishers in a year. I have a few ideas but I haven’t begun to write them yet! I am looking forward to touring the US and Canada and making notes about the different places I go to. I think that might get me inspired!

  1. What are some techniques you use to combat writer’s block?

I think you just have to ease up on yourself and not be mean to yourself! I can push myself too hard, where the best writing comes instinctively. The best thing to do is to get out into the world and live your life – that’s the really inspiring stuff.

  1. What do you like to snack on when you read or write?

Sometimes to keep myself going I get jelly babies. It doesn’t help, but my Mum always gets them when she needs a bit of a sugar rush and I’ve picked up the habit just because it reminds me of her! I tend to neglect food when I’m writing because I get too distracted by it’s yumminess, but I always think a big, hearty meal after a good writing session is needed, because it does take a lot of energy! I like a nice beef burger and fries!

***

  1. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re working on a novel?

Usually nothing, but I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if maps was playing over and over in the background, I think I could write. I listen to The National a lot but that makes me get up and dance too often.

Yeah, for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!

***

  1. Which is your favourite genre to read? To write?

To read: literary fiction, whatever that means. I like a book to be lusciously written, with beautiful prose and words I don’t know. I like to get to know a character and learn something meaningful about life. I don’t really read thrillers that often, unless they are the quiet, intense, character led kind. I think I’m still finding my voice in terms of writing. I enjoy writing in the first person, and I hope my use of language will continue to develop.

  1. What’s your favourite saying or quote?

“Worry is like a rocking chair, gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

That’s from Van Wilder, Party Liaison.

  1. You’re house is on fire! What three things would you take with you before escaping the smoke and the flames?

Laptop, humans (includes one teddy bear), hard drive.

  1. If you could have dinner with three people at the same time, who would they be and why?

My Mum, my Dad and my brother. It would be hilarious.

  1. If you could describe yourself in only three words, what words would you use?

Cheerful, hopeful and interested.

  1. What do you enjoy most about creative writing?

A lack of boundaries.

  1. What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s an aspiring writer?

Don’t throw everything else away. Live your life out in the world too, because a writer’s words are only as good as their inspiration.

Thanks, Abigail, for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your thoughts on your new novel, The Golden Boy! It was certainly a pleasure to read the book and to get to know you through this interview. Congratulations on your publication and the best of success for your next project! – Zara

***

Quotations:

“I guess you’d maybe be under this category?” I say, pointing to ‘Not XX and not XY.’
“I guess so. Wow. One in one thousand, six hundred and sixty-six births. That’s a lot.”
….”Though, I had an oveotestis when I was born, and it says here that’s one in eighty-three thousand.”
“…What’s an ovotestis?”
“Um…where you have tissue of both an ovary and a testes in the same gonad.”

“absorbed your twin in the womb, giving you both your own female genitalia and his male genitalia.”

You’re in Sylvie’s bedroom, says my brain.
Yup
Are you gonna do it with her?
No, how can I?
Oh, go on. You want to bury your face in her hair so bad. What’s the worst that could happen.”

“due to societal pressure to be normal and fear of differences, being intersex may just ruin their life.”

“I don’t get what the difference is between a girlfriend and a friend who is a girl. Max has said things about them being attractive, but is that the only difference?”

 Now I’m too tired and scared to say anything positive, to be proud of who I am, to be a good big brother to Daniel, to be anything but indifferent. I don’t believe in anything I used to believe in anymore. Growing up, you believe the friends you have are good people, you believe your parents are always right, you believe that when the hard times come, you’ll know what to do, you’ll get through it, you’ll be the hero.

But then the bad things happen and everybody lets every­body else down. And you realise that old friends can be bad people. Your mum and dad can’t fix everything. You’re not the hero you thought you were. It was just that you hadn’t had anything that difficult to deal with yet, so you didn’t know that you were really the coward. That you were really weak. No. I don’t believe in the things I used to believe anymore.

I already have apathy about everything surface-deep, and everything deeper is changing for the worse and it’s my fault: Mum, Dad, Sylvie, Daniel, all of it. I used to think I wasn’t trying at all to be the best brother, the best son, the best footballer, the best friend. Now I realise I was trying really /hard. I’m starting to understand that attempting to be perfect has been the goal of my life. Our lives. Attempting to be this fault-free, smiling person in this loving, happy family that fits so perfectly in this pretty, inoffensive little town. What was so bad about that goal, after all? Only that I couldn’t do it. That I let everybody down. I’ve been so down about it, so depressed thinking about all the balls I was trying to juggle that I’ve dropped, and now the cogs are turning towards total apathy about it all, everything, and all I can think is that I am a shell of a human being. I’m a pushover. I’m to blame.

It’s not Hunter’s fault that I didn’t push him off me, and it’s not Mum’s fault that I didn’t stop the abortion before that last second. I guess I wouldn’t have kept it, but I can’t help thinking that I might have, if things were a little different, because I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about it and feeling sorry for it, and crying over it. Because it wasn’t the poor baby’s fault how it was conceived, no more than it’s my fault that I’m intersex.

But it is my fault, how I’ve reacted to my diagnosis, how I’ve dealt with it. Who I’ve become.

It was my turn to make the hard decisions. I had to count on me and me alone to hold my life and my family together. But I let all the voices get too loud and I didn’t listen to my own voice, that central thing at the heart of me that was beating like a drum, insistent, like falling rain on a window, saying that I should stop, give myself time, that I shouldn’t just do what everyone else said, that I should fight back and be who I am rather than who everybody else wanted me to be. I’m not the hero boyfriend Sylvie deserves. I’m not the hero big brother Daniel needs. I’m not the perfect son my parents wanted. I’m not the champion, or the parent the baby needed.

Dealing with trans individuals in the clinic did not prepare me for dealing with Max, because being one gender and wanting to be another is a completely different thing, perhaps even the opposite, of feel­ing, as perhaps Max does, OK as you are, but forced to choose. As a doctor, most of the health issues we work with involve a clear-cut right or wrong way to be. It is not OK to be obese, it is not OK to have cancer, it is not OK to eat sugar all the time. Many moral issues are the same: it is wrong to be racist, it is wrong to pay men more than women for the same job, it is wrong to murder. Perhaps this is why intersexuality is so controversial. The ‘norm’ is to have two separate genders, and when someone presents as different from the norm, we think they are ‘wrong’, we call their condition a ‘disorder’. But how detrimental is intersexuality, really, to a person’s life?

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The Bell – Iris Murdoch

TB(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This was all the rage when I was an undergraduate. A gay Christian was highly unusual then. Now, it’s almost compulsory.

This is a 1958 novel about a lay community sheltering in the grounds of a country estate.

Ex-teacher Michael Meade sets up a secular-religious enclave at his house, Imber Court in Gloucestershire, whose assorted inhabitants seek a “refuge from modernity”, which “with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure” offers “no home to these unhappy souls”. The book depicts the portentous arrival of two visitors: a schoolboy, Toby, “greatly attracted by the idea of living and working, for a while at least, with a group of holy people who had given up the world”; and Dora, the errant wife of a scholar who is returning penitently but reluctantly to her stultifying marriage. Imber is in turn set against a convent of Benedictine nuns across the lake, a “buffer state” between the abbey and the real world in which Murdoch stages a clash of ideals: religious yearning, sexual passion, and the role of spirituality in a materialist era.

Consider, this novel was written in 1958 when homosexuals were whispered about, and called ‘pansies’ or ‘queers’.  Murdoch does not write of Michaels feelings towards Nick or Toby as dirty or twisted but just as a different kind of love.  It was beautifully handled.

In The Bell, Murdoch presents homosexuality through the context of several different characters. Firstly, there is the firsthand perspective of Michael Meade. Michael is inherently, though limitedly, affected by society’s perception of his sexuality, “Michael Meade at twenty-five had already known for some while that he was what the world called perverted”. Despite this understanding, Michael is acutely aware of his inability to separate his sexuality from the rest of his being, especially his religion, “It scarcely occurred to him that his religion could establish any quarrel with his sexual habits. Indeed, in some curious way the emotion which fed both arose deeply from the same source”. Murdoch provides the common societal attitude toward homosexuality through the character of James Tayper Pace. In describing his feelings towards Nick Fawley, James is nothing short of homophobic, displaying stereotypical attitudes reflective of 1950s English society, “‘He looks to me like a pansy,’….‘They’re always trouble-makers, believe me. I’ve seen plenty of that type. There’s something destructive in them, a sort of grudge against society’” . As yet another perspective on homosexuality, Murdoch provides the character of Toby with a more enlightened (though still not accepting) attitude, “In so far as he had up to now reflected on this propensity at all he had regarded it as a strange sickness or perversion, with mysterious and disgusting refinements, from which a small number of unfortunate persons suffered”.

In many ways, Murdoch’s representation of the homosexual experience is a direct reflection of common attitudes during the 1950s in England, “The Bell, Murdoch’s first fictional work that depicts the daily life of a male homosexual in detail, was published only months later in 1958 and accurately illustrates the legal dilemmas facing homosexual men during this era” . Murdoch’s examination of homosexuality during this time period should be considered especially courageous, “Murdoch often portrayed homosexuality in her fiction at times when it was not necessarily in vogue to do so, particularly during sensitive periods of change of legislative control over homosexuality in Great Britain”. In fact, during the 1950s “homosexual acts were still considered by law to be criminal offences” (“Cabinet Papers”). According to the Lesbian & Gay foundation, sodomy “was punishable by life imprisonment, though before 1861 it was a capital crime” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). During the time period just before publication of Murdoch’s The Bell, prosecution against homosexuals was actually on the rise, “Between 1945 and 1955 the number of annual prosecutions for homosexual behaviour rose from 800 to 2,500, of whom 1,000 received custodial sentences” (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). As an alternative to imprisonment, some so-called “offenders” opted for a “cure” to avoid jail time, “In the 1950s and 1960s, behavioural therapy was used to try to “cure” gay men. Men convicted of homosexual acts were routinely given electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs and subjected to brainwashing techniques” (Wheeler). According to Brian Wheeler of BBC News, “The most common form of treatment was aversion therapy, of the kind seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange” (Wheeler). This treatment of homosexuality as a disease is reflective of Toby’s attitude in the novel, “He also knew, and differed here from his father, that it was more proper to regard these persons as subjects for the doctor than as subjects for the police”. While medical treatment would be far more desirable than criminalization, this is still a far cry from the attitudes towards homosexuality in England today.

In 1954, in response to increased controversy and media coverage, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain was formed to reassess the criminalization of homosexuality. Just before publication of The Bell, “The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957. It concluded that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty. While the law should prevent abuse and protect the young and other vulnerable individuals, it should not intrude into matters of personal morality” (“Cabinet Papers”). Another revelation of the Wolfenden Report, was the vocational tendencies of criminalized homosexuals to seek refuge through clerical and teaching positions. Murdoch represents this tendency through Michael’s character. He is not only a teacher in his early career, but also a religious leader, who has dreams of one day becoming a priest. According to Grimshaw, “The guilt and fears some homosexual men experienced also stemmed from the social and moral responsibilities inherent in their vocations. Perhaps choosing such vocations to quell their fears and desires, homosexuals found that these fears paradoxically heightened when they could not suppress their sexual desires through their work”. Essentially, criminalization was driving homosexuals into these kinds of vocations where they attempted to escape themselves, but sometimes failed to do so, inevitably increasing the risk of harm to the young.

It could be said that Murdoch’s treatment of the social question of homosexuality certainly wasn’t undertaken in the search for popularity. It is very much the work of an activist, exploiting social issues through artistic literary means. During this time period, Murdoch also took the stance of activist in her contributions to the publication Man and Society, “Writing for the journal in 1964, Murdoch speaks out against members of society who “simply…make unfounded assumption about what it is to be homosexual,” adding that “the law and social prejudice” create difficulties for homosexual men”. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuality continued to be a topic of derision and judgment in popular media, “The infamous Sunday Pictorial feature of 1963, ‘How to spot a Homo’, [pictured above] might be less a subject of interest today.  Much use was made of stereotypes of mincing queens and child molesters or corrupters which bore at best marginal resemblance to the generality of gay men, then as now, but were nonetheless often believed”  (“Lesbian & Gay Foundation”). Homosexuality was not decriminalized in England until almost 10 years after the publication of Murdoch’s The Bell. According to the National Archives, “The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised male homosexuality between consenting adults above the age of twenty-one” (“Cabinet Papers”).

Toby finds the lost medieval abbey bell while diving in the lake, where it was supposedly cast centuries earlier as a curse after a nun had an affair with a man; Dora suggests they secretly swap it for the abbey’s new bell, due to be delivered shortly, as a lark. Needless to say, things don’t go to plan, with consequences that are by turns slapstick and deadly serious.

In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing.

Everyone at Imber is trying to figure out how to lead a meaningful life amid the disintegrating ethical certainties of a secular society. But you can’t escape yourself.

The lay community doesn’t survive the scandal of the bell’s resurrection but the abbey remains at the novel’s end – its legacy secured, in fact, by Michael’s leasing of the house and its grounds to the nuns indefinitely.

Her novels often include upper-middle-class male intellectuals caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously “knowing” children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male “enchanter” who imposes his will on the other characters—a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.

 TB 2Quotations:

[…] since, somewhere, something good existed, it might be that her problems would be solved after all. There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion. She bought a sandwich and took a taxi back to Paddington.

“like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake.”

“potty communities are good for a feature”

“The bell is subject to the force of gravity.  The swing that takes it down must also take it up.  So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.”

TB 3“I know how much you grieve over those who are under your care: those you try to help and fail, those you cannot help. Have faith in God and remember that He will is His own way and in His own time complete what we so poorly attempt. Often we do not achieve for others the good that we intend but achieve something, something that goes on from our effort. Good is an overflow. Where we generously and sincerely intend it, we are engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves – and because it is mysterious we may be afraid of it. But this should not make us draw back. God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better way; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.”
“Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.”
“Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.”
“Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself.”
“The talk of lovers who have just declared their love is one of life’s most sweet delights. Each vies with the other in humility, in amazement at being so valued. The past is searched for the first signs and each one is in haste to declare all that he is so that no part of his being escapes the hallowing touch.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”
“… he felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it. They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely; and present-day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls.”
“The chief requirement of the good life’, said Michael, ‘is that one should have some conception of one’s capacities. One must know oneself sufficiently to know what is the next thing. One must study carefully how best to use such strength as one has. … One must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.”
“But death is not easy, and life can win by simulating it.”
“Patchway had the enviable countryman’s capacity, which is shared only by great actors, of standing by and saying nothing, and yet existing, large, present, and at ease.”
“You don’t respect me,” said Dora, her voice trembling.

“Of course I don’t respect you,” said Paul. “Have I any reason to? I’m in love with you, unfortunately, that’s all.”

TB 4“Well, it’s unfortunate for me too,” said Dora, starting to cry.”
“Dora watched him for a while, nervously, and then returned to scanning the whole group. Seeing them all together like that she felt excluded and aggressive, and Noel’s exhortations came back to her. They had a secure complacent look about them: the spiritual ruling class; and she wished suddenly that she might grow as large and fierce as a gorilla and shake the flimsy doors off their hinges, drowning the repulsive music in a savage carnivorous yell.”
“Youth is a marvelous garment. How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change, when one has cast the die and has to settle into a chosen life without the consolations of habit or the wisdom of maturity, when, as in her own case, one ceases to be une jeune fille un peu folle, and becomes merely a woman, worst of all, a wife. The very young have their troubles, but they have at least a part to play, the part of being very young.”
“He went away, bent double with the pains of remorse and regret and the inward biting of a love which had now no means of expression. He remembered now when it was useless how the Abbess had told him that the way was always forward. Nick had needed love, and he ought to have given him what he had to offer, without fears about its imperfection. If he had had more faith he would have done so, not calculating either Nick’s faults or his own. Michael recalled too how, with Toby; he had acted with more daring, and had probably acted wrong. Yet no serious harm had come to Toby; besides he had not loved Toby as he loved Nick, was not responsible for Toby as he had been for Nick. So great a love must have contained some grain of good, something at least which might have attached Nick to this world, given him some glimpse of hope. Wretchedly Michael forced himself to remember the occasions on which Nick had appealed to him since he came to Imber, and how on every occasion Michael had denied him. Michael had concerned himself with keeping his own hands clean, his own future secure, when instead he should have opened his heart: should impetuously and devotedly and beyond all reason have broken the alabaster cruse of very costly ointment.”
“Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.”

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