Friday, 21 March 2014

Froanna - Portrait of the Artist's Wife,  Wyndham Lewis, 1937

If you didn't know from the title that this was the artist's wife (and she is wearing a wedding ring), don't you think that your first guess would be that she's a slightly prissy-minded spinster school-teacher, worn out because it's near the end of term, in her dressing gown by 9.30pm because her evenings are filled with marking ... and just look how she's keeping up standards with that traycloth, even though she's alone.

I haven't been able to settle with a book lately - I keep starting and not finishing and nothing seems to be quite right. But I found this old Virago in the Oxfam shop last week - I'm Not Complaining, by Ruth Adam - and had a vague recollection that this was a Persephone author whom I've never read.

I haven't been able to put it down since. (And realised later that Darlene has been here before me.)

I was sorry for Jenny, and frightened for her, and terribly jealous of her. Hardworking, contented women like me get this longing, from time to time, for all the experiences that have passed us by. We do not go mad over it, as women do in psychological books, nor even get a little bit queer. It goes off after a few days and we are ourselves again.

Madge Brigson is a teacher in a deprived Nottinghamshire town in the 1930s. She is not particularly likeable, but she is so convincing that I could hardly believe that this is fiction not autobiography. Madge is 30 at a time when 30 meant 40; primly resigned to virginity, yet horribly fascinated by sex; cynical about the nit-ridden brats she teaches and their parents - and her misunderstanding of the plight of the school caretaker, still traumatised by his war experiences, has doubly tragic consequences.

The other teachers in the staffroom are likewise unmarried, as women teachers had to resign as soon as they got a ring on their finger. By the standards of the day, they are well-paid, but society despises them as old-maids and a bad report from Her Majesty's Inspectors could get them sacked.

There is Madge's friend, the lovely Jenny, who seized on teaching as a way out of her own squalid childhood in the slums; when the book opens, she is desperately trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy ... and she isn't consumed with guilt when she pulls it off. There is prickly, communist-minded Miss Simpson, Miss Thornby who got so desperate that she invented a man, Miss Jones who discovers that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. Also, the headmistress whose fiancé returned from the war as a limbless torso.

Yes, it's fiction, but it was drawn from Ruth Adam's own experience teaching in Nottinghamshire. It reminded me slightly of Winifred Holtby's South Riding, which was published two years earlier in 1936, but Adam's writing feels distinctly more modern. It's Call the Midwife, only with teachers ... and it would make a terrific TV series. I'm casting Olivia Colman as Madge.


A Trifle Rushed said...

What a lot to pack into a novel! You've convinced me, I've just found a copy online and bought it.

Sue said...

I like your comment about Olivia Coleman, I'm glad I'm not the only one who casts the characters in books. I like to have a definite face in my head when I read rather than an incomplete ghost face.

mary said...

I hope you enjoy it, Jude - do report back!

I'm not even that keen on her, Sue - but it's definitely her face! Or maybe it's because I've just been watching the first episodes of Rev.

Alex said...

We also have a portrait of Foranna in the collection at The Barber Institute. Ours is all blues and greens. Apparently, she was kept very much in the background. When her husband invited friends for dinner she had to stay in the kitchen and serve the meal through a hatch.

mary said...

Oh, Alex - I was there only last week! Is it on view? I don't remember it.

Toffeeapple said...

She not only has a tray cloth but also does her hair in complicated pattern. Well, she and I would have a falling out.

I loved 'South Riding' and want to read more of Winifred Holtby.

Alex said...

It's in the print room, Mary. I wish I'd known you were coming. I could have arranged for you to see it.

mary said...

I enjoyed The Crowded Street, Toffeeapple - but I prefered South Riding. Have a feeling that I read some of the others but so many years ago that memory blurs!

It was all planned in a bit of rush, Alex - I knew I wanted to see the new library but I was still dithering on the train whether I'd go to the Barber Institute or spend time in the City Art gallery. Really wanted to do both but, as I suspected, there wasn't time.