Virginia Woolf – Monk’s House

While we had visited nearby Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury set a couple of times, we had never visited nearby (six miles distance) Monk’s House. till now Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought the simple cottage in 1919. They had been married seven years. Virginia wrote four of her best-known books there: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

Virginia found it a place of calm: how happy I am how calm, for the moment how sweet life is with L here, in its regularity and order, and the garden and the room at night and music and my walks and writing easily and interestedly.

A Room of Her Own

The house had many disadvantages. It was small, it was damp, it flooded, it had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. However, it had a wild but large garden and splendid views over the South Downs. Gradually, with the royalties from their books, they did the house up. Mrs. Dalloway, for example, paid for an indoors toilet. They built an extension. and a lodge – Virginia’s Room of Her Own (see photo above right. It is now behind glass, hence the not very good photo).

The house was reputedly very messy, with books everywhere. (The books have since been removed but replaced. by National Trust books, i.e. old-looking books bought in bulk. I was struck by the four volume set of the Intimate Memoirs of Colonel House – House was Woodrow Wilson’s adviser – presumably acquired because no-one in the National Trust had any idea of who Colonel House was). A few have been judiciously placed on the stairs but, as you cannot go upstairs (the building is permanently occupied by a National Trust person for security reasons) it is relatively safe.

The pictures at top left and immediately left show that there were some works of art there. (The house is very small so it is difficult to take photos). Some were by the Bloomsbury set from nearby Charleston, particularly, Virginia’s sister and Vanessa’s lover Duncan Grant.

Virginia committed suicide in the nearby River Ouse. After her death, Leonard lived there for twenty-eight years, till his death. Much of the time he was with his lover, the artist Trekkie Parsons. Like many women artists, she has faded into obscurity, except for her relationship with Leonard. Some of her paintings are in the house, while many others have disappeared. Work is now taking place to track them down.

W V Tilsley: Other Ranks

A few years go I read W V Tilsley‘s Other Ranks. This is an account of a soldier in Word War I. It was originally published in 1931 and never republished. It was very hard (if not almost impossible) to find a copy. As a result of my review, I was contacted by a lady who was related to Tilsley by marriage. She was determined to get the book published and worked very hard to do so. I am happy to report that it has now been republished and you can get it direct from the publisher, Unicorn Publishing. Their website says of them Unicorn Publishing Group LLP is a leading independent publisher with three distinct imprints: Unicorn, specialising in the visual arts and cultural history; Uniform, specialising in military history; and Universe, specialising in historical fiction. I would highly recommend this book, particularly if you are interested in accounts of war, World War I or simply good writing. Hopefully the book will now become better known.

Will Eaves: Murmur

The latest addition to my website is Will EavesMurmur. This is a fictionalised account of Alan Turing, focussing on the period after he had been receiving diethylstilbestrol to reduce his libido, after his arrest for homosexual offences in 1952. Eaves superbly shows the intellectual life and thoughts of Turing as well as his personal life and, in particular the effect on both his body and mind of the chemical castration he was receiving. The book is both a condemnation of the horrific treatment of homosexuality as though it were a disease – a view, sadly, that still exists in some parts of the world – as well as a tribute to a brilliant mind who sadly died far too young.

Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me. As the title implies, this is about robots. Set in an alternative 1982 where Thatcher has lost the Falklands War and Alan Turing did not kill himself but invented the Internet, it tells the story of Charlie Friend who, with an inheritance, bought one of a batch of twenty-five robots, called, imaginatively, Adam. (The females, which sold out at once, are called Eve). We follow Charlie’s relationship with Adam, not as simple as he thought it was going to be, and with Miranda, the woman who lives upstairs. Throw in Miranda’s past (revealed to Charlie by Adam) and ab abused child whom Miranda would like to adopt and we have a complicated plot. However, the main issue is, are robots sentient beings, should we treat them as such and can they learn what we have learned – the good, the bad and the ugly – and adapt accordingly? This is McEwan’s best book for a whole and well worth reading both for the story and the issues it raises.

John Lanchester: The Wall

The latest addition to my website is John Lanchester‘s The Wall. This is a post-apocalyptic novel about a country which has a wall entirely round its coastline (some 10,000 km) to keep out refugees. The country is presumably based on Britain. There has been an event called The Change, which has involved major flooding all over the world due to rising sea levels, presumably because of the melting of the polar ice caps. In the first part of the book, we follow a man called Kavanagh. The country requires everyone – men and women – to serve for two years as Defenders, keeping out any refugees trying to breach the wall. If any refugees do get through, the Defenders on that part of the wall are put into a boat, towed out to sea and abandoned to their fate. We follow the adventures of Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders, before turning to the story of some refugees in the second part of the book. This book was presumably written in the light of the proposed Trump wall and the refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere and tells an effective story, but how much would a 10,000 km wall cost?

Edward Upward: No Home But the Struggle

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s No Home But the Struggle. This is the final book in Upward’s Spiral Ascent trilogy. He and his wife have now left the Communist Party, feeling that it has betrayed its ideals and have also become aware of the crimes of Stalin and the faults of the Soviet Union. Alan is retired from teaching, living in a house he inherited from his family, by the sea. The couple are now involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) but this takes up a relatively small part of the book. Much of it is spent reminiscing about his childhood and young adulthood, though he continues to struggle with his poetry and whether it is relevant to his political views. The book is perhaps less interesting than the previous two because there are no political controversies. Overall, I enjoyed the trilogy but, I suspect, it will not be remembered for long.

Edward Upward: The Rotten Elements

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s The Rotten Elements, the second in his Spiral Ascent Trilogy, about communism in Britain in the middle of the last century. This one follows several years after the first one and starts some time after World War II. Alan and Elsie Sebrill are married with two children and committed members of the Communist Party. However, they feel that the British party is moving away from true Leninist doctrine – the need for a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and not compromising with social democrat parties (i.e. the governing Labour Party in Britain) – and they raise this quite vocally. Not surprisingly, they are met with considerable opposition and things do not go well for them in the Party. The book does get into what might seem to us areas of arcane doctrinal differences but it still remains a worthwhile novel and is an interesting read.

Edward Upward: In the Thirties

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s In the Thirties, the first book in his The Spiral Ascent trilogy, his best-known work. We follow the story of Alan Sebrill, in the 1930s. Sebrill, like Upward on whom he is clearly based, is a committed Communist. At the beginning of the book, he is determined to write poetry but struggles with it, feeling that it is perhaps not committed enough. After something of an epiphany, he realises he must commit himself more to the political struggle. He returns to London, where he gets a job as a teacher (a job he does not particularly relish) and joins the Communist Party. We follow the struggles of the Party, both with the problems of the Depression and, in the latter part of the book, the rise of Fascism, including the activities of the Fascists in England. Their views (almost uncritical support of the Soviet Union and Stalin) seem very naive. However, following Alan’s political (and romantic) development make the book an enjoyable read.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England. This is his best novel since his superb political satire What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). It continues the stories of Benjamin Trotter, his family and friends, from The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, while giving us another brilliant political satire, this time aimed at recent events (2010 onwards), with particular reference to Brexit. Coe skilfully mixes in the political environment, his political satire and the story of several characters from those earlier novels. He does not hide his views – Fuck Brexit! as Benjamin Trotter says – but does show the other side to a certain degree and shows how the generation gap, the class gap and the Brexit gap are alive and well in no longer moderate England.

Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The latest addition to my website is Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls. This is a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, based primarily on The Iliad. It is narrated mainly by Briseis, wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, an ally of Troy conquered by the Greeks before they conquer Troy. Briseis is captured and made the concubine of Achilles and we see the events of the Trojan War through her eyes, instead of through the eyes of the (probably male) Homer. She and the other women suffer, as they are used for (usually rough) sex but also as nurses, servants, comforters, washers of the dead and other tasks deemed appropriate for female slaves. Meanwhile, Briseis becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon. We know how it all ends, with many men dead, but it is the women who suffer – rape, death, abuse, enslavement – without being involved in the war excepts as bystanders and/or victims, while the men joyously kill one another. Barker tells her tale well, with the implication being that men may not have improved much in the intervening three thousand years since the Trojan War.