Review Post 25 – Short Women

I’m all for gender equality, so after regaling you with my experiences of two novellas by male writers, it’s time for a couple written by women. These ones were purchased rather than borrowed, but as they come from the incredibly affordable Wordsworth Classics range, I was happy to splash out the few dollars they cost me. Of course, the big question is how the ladies’ efforts compared to those of the two Nobel Laureates. Allons-y…

*****

The first of the two novellas is Edith Wharton’s slim classic Ethan Frome, and when I found out that the introduction in my version wasn’t much shorter than the actual story, I was not a happy bunny. Luckily, as has been the case with the other books of hers which I have read, I was very pleasantly surprised and had forgotten about the injustice of the lack of pages by the end of the story. Set in 19th-century rural New England, it is a story within a story, where a visitor to a sleepy, isolated town sets eyes upon the gaunt figure of Ethan Frome and, on learning sketchy details of his life, becomes fascinated by the taciturn farmer. On being caught in a snowstorm, he is invited into the Frome house, and it is at that point that Wharton throws us back a quarter of a century, and the real story begins.

The main part of the book describes Ethan’s life, living with his older wife, Zeena, and her engaging and beautiful cousin, Mattie, on his farm. It becomes clear that Ethan has fallen for Mattie and that she is not adverse to him either. However, in the background, lurking like a vengeful zombie, is the awful Zeena, a hypochondriac who subtly gets into the mind of her husband and cousin, poisoning the atmosphere of the house and squeezing out what joy her two younger companions have left in their lives. You may have noticed that I wasn’t particularly fond of old Zeena…

Wharton expertly creates a psychological prison, leaving Ethan flailing around blindly for a means of escape – but there is none. With no money, he can’t countenance leaving his sick (in many senses of the word) wife, and he tortures himself thinking of what could be and what should never have been. The bleak, mid-winter New England landscape which the writer conjures up adds to the feeling of gloom and oppression, both real and imagined. When Zeena unexpectedly takes her cruelty to new heights, Ethan and Mattie, driven into a corner, suddenly make a decision which will alter their lives for good…

And then… Then we return to the present day where a surprise awaits us at the Frome farmhouse. And it’s a good one.

Despite its brevity Ethan Frome is an excellent story, gripping and thought provoking, and in Zeena, Wharton creates a remarkable literary villain. Despite the best efforts of the academic writing the introduction to my copy, who has a lot of sympathy for Zeena, a woman who has no real choices in a time and place where women had little opportunity to improve their lot, I was content to boo and hiss and hope that the roof would fall on her head. Now Wharton, on the other hand, I have a lot of time for. Three out of three so far for a writer I hadn’t even heard of a couple of years ago: that’s a good strike rate in anyone’s language.

*****

The second of my short ladies is Virginia Woolf, another (fairly) recent discovery of mine, whose books I have enjoyed immensely so far. I was a bit worried about this one though, and, for the first couple of pages, I thought my misgivings were justified, with a mind-bending switching of voices from line to line which was… well, just annoying, quite frankly. However, it settled down quite quickly, and The Waves turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing read.

There is no plot as such, which may come as a bit of a surprise to some. Instead, Woolf was writing to a rhythm, switching between the minds of her six protagonists, allowing us to see what’s going on in their heads, what they are really thinking. The nine chapters follow the six from their childhood at a school near the sea to old age, and each one takes the characters further on their journey though life. At first, the voices are bewildering, clamouring, almost identical, but they quickly take on their own nuances, developing into individual personae. The characters appear to speak directly to the reader rather than to the others present at the moment, at times rendering the style similar to a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean play. Look, just read it, and you’ll see what I mean…

The flow of the characters’ progression from childhood towards death is contrasted with descriptive pieces preceding each section, in which Woolf depicts one day of sunshine over the coast. The first piece captures the glories of sunrise and the first mention of the waves, and as the book progresses, so does the day, with the sun beaming out at the height of its powers when the characters are in the prime of their lives and beginning to crawl back towards the horizon as old age approaches.

The six main characters are thought to represent people in Woolf’s life: family, friends, lovers. However, it is also said that they actually represent different facets of the writer’s own personality, allowing her to explore the different sides of her life, revealing all of her true colours. The Waves is obviously one of those books which you have to read about before actually reading…

No plot, as mentioned, but there are, of course, trillions of themes and motifs, much too many to even attempt to explore outside a doctoral thesis (and I’m certain a good few academics will have spent their PhD years on this particular work). Every reader will take something different from the book and will probably identify with one of the characters more than the others (or, at least, with their way of life). For me, it’s Bernard’s sad obsession with stepping outside life, avoiding the pressing constraints of civilisation, the rush, rush, rush, the must, must, must that fascinates me (like most bookworms, I am forever wanting to turn the outside world off for a time and exist suspended in a stress-free cocoon). Sadly, however magical the moment, eventually the bubble pops, and we are left to continue with our busy, busy lives.

This is an intriguing book and well deserving of its reputation. It needs to be read and reread; and I’m sure that that’s exactly what I’ll do.

*****

After a week of short fiction, it’s time to hand out the prizes, and I would have to give this match to the ladies. Woolf played a very strong game and was ably backed up by her American partner, whose concision and precision made her a formidable protagonist. On the other side of the net, Garcia Marquez used his unorthodox style to great effect, his cunning and elegance making up for a lack of brute strength. Sadly, Naipaul, usually very strong, let his partner down slightly; a little off his game, I feel he didn’t take this one too seriously – not bad, just not up to the level of this company.

Still there’s always the chance of a rematch…

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