I finished my winter knitting project, a blanket for the lovely Rosa… easy as anything, on a big circular needle, knitting in knit only, increasing by one stitch at the start of each line until you feel it is wide enough… then decreasing by one stitch at the start of each line until finished. I had hank of yarn left so made a fringe… (it’s a Noro yarn, ‘blossom’, made from mohair silk and wool…) So that’s that, and now to quilt…
And on the reading front:
Brian Nellist, my University tutor and Ph.D. supervisor, my 25-year colleague and teacher, is not infallible but (unless it is something to do with the Conservative Party) he is usually right, especially about whether or not I’ll be interested in a work of literature. Sometime last winter he recommended Rachel Trickett’s novel, The Return Home (1952) (out of print) and Phil ordered a second-hand copy online.
I didn’t like the look of it when it arrived, with its serious and plain ‘I am a 1950s intellectual’ black cover. ‘With an Introduction by Lord David Cecil’ it announced in bold letters, as if, arriving in our lives, Miss Trickett needed a letter of introduction. This novel was published three years before I was born, and it came with a mothball-feel about it, an atmosphere I remembered from childhood, a vapour trail of class snobbery and intellectual snobbery which, in the worlds I inhabit these days, is almost completely wiped out. I will pass over the ‘almost’.
Who was Lord David Cecil, I asked myself, but I didn’t bother to look him up on Wikipedia. Rachel Trickett I knew a little about. She had been an Oxford Don, a teacher of English Literature, and I think she was external examiner at Liverpool some point during the time I was there and I think I may once have seen her – an old, stout, hatted woman in a corridor. Wearing plum and brown crimpolene. (I’ll ask Phil about this later and we’ll see if it is false memory syndrome. He won’t remember the crimpolene but he may remember the hat, and certainly the external examining). And she came from somewhere in the North. T’North, I should say. Somewhere like Alsager or Crewe, or maybe Bolton. I think that ‘fact’ is in my mind because Brian talked to me about that when he was encouraging me to read the book.
Inside the jacket, Lord David Cecil says ‘Miss Trickett has achieved what many critics now declare to be impossible. She makes use of a quiet, uneventful story about sensitive, civilised people to convey a fresh and profoundly-felt vision of reality. It is a privilege to introduce the public to this beautiful book.’ As I read this, the words ‘sensitive, civilised’ got my uncivilised hackles up: I felt like a modern-day D.H. Lawrence and wanted to throw the book away. Which in a less violent way, more careless way I did, by leaving it to one side. Phil took it up, took it up, literally, to his study and I forgot about it.
Then a couple of weeks ago I had run out of things to read and he said, ‘Why don’t you try that Rachel Trickett novel? I couldn’t get on with it but Brian thought there was something to it…’ So he brought it back down and I made a not very enthusiastic start. For some reason I tried to read the Introduction by LDC. I don’t know why I did that, as I rarely read any sort of introduction to anything, not even ‘ How To Use Caustic Soda Safely.’ Perhaps I wanted to get my own back up. ‘Miss Trickett’s language is grave and formal’ he writes. Oh no, I’m thinking. The last thing I want to read. ‘Her good taste prevents her making use of those tricks of storytelling…’ Oh go and get lost, I’m thinking, you bloody snob. ‘Delicate’, ‘aesthetic sensibility’… I’m not going to like this. And so, seething and not at all open-minded I settle to read.
I settle to read. But for me these days that means half an hour in the morning, half an hour at night. The quietness of mind that one needs –no interruptions from self or others – to read intently is hard to achieve in small slots of time, and it takes me ten minutes to achieve reading concentration. And my own irritation keeps getting in the way. So during the first 50 or so pages I’m not reading, I’m looking for reasons to give up. It is not until I get a Saturday morning in bed that The Return Home receives the kind of generous, open-minded attention a novel requires in order to come to life, and suddenly, instead of irritation (snobs! Horrible Bloomsbury types!) I find, on page 71, that I am concentrating and interested in this girl, Christiana, see through the eyes of the sophisticated Nicholas, as she preaches, in a 1950’s northern non-conformist chapel;
Her hands rested firmly on the velvet cushion, and for the first moment he fixed his attention on them; they were large and white, and the way in which she held them suggested remarkable control and strength. He saw that she was tall, well-built, and dressed with care and not unfashionable severity … As the first moment passed he listened to what she was saying. There was no suggestion of shyness or of any deep emotion in her light, ably controlled voice, only confidence and sincerity. Her manner was a little that of the engaging young teacher deferring to the merits of her class, but sure of her own power and control. As he listened, Nicholas rejected, almost without thinking of it, the flimsy appeal of her theology, but his senses and his imagination were not so disengaged. It was her voice, her face, the way she occasionally moved her hands in spontaneous but limited gestures, that created the peculiar effect…
This is perhaps the first the place in the novel where worlds collide, the world of the knowing, travelled, ever-moving Nicholas and the innocent, ignorant, stationary world of Christiana. That becomes largely the subject matter of the novel. But what interested me most here was Rachel Trickett’s slow, conscious attempt in this description to catch something of a particular person. I was struck by the remarkable reality of those hands, resting ‘firmly on the velvet cushion…they were large and white, and the way in which she held them suggested remarkable control and strength.’ And by the time I read the sentence which likens her manner to ‘that of the engaging young teacher deferring to the merits of her class, but sure of her own power and control,’ I was completely engaged in the reading experience.
By ‘completely engaged in the reading experience’ I mean that I am interior both to the words on the page and to the speedy glancing – but that is not the word, this is more like rummaging, this feels like taking up and assessing and throwing down or hanging onto bits of experience, of memory which may inhabit, which may become, the life of the words on the page. It is as if, reading, I am a method actor, and this is my script: I must bring it to life with my self. But self is not it, either, for it is less personal than that. I must create it from the inside out with things my self knows or has experienced or can imagine. I must fill the words on the page with lived meaning. Reading at this point is nothing to do with decoding the marks on the page and everything to do with flexing my imagination in several directions : I have been that confident young teacher – and so probably has Rachel Trickett – she may even have been it as she was writing. At the same time as these two complex thoughts/memories cross my mind I am thinking also of some of the young students teachers I have been working with at Liverpool Hope University. Also I am thinking of D.H.Lawrence and Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow, of David Herbert Lawrence as a teacher, of Ursula learning to be a teacher. Perhaps I have other teachers – real and literary – in that rummage box too, but I am rummaging too fast to notice them.
So, as I rifle through the meanings I have in my experience to fill these words, I am trying several of them at once, and all the time, trying to ‘see’ Christiana. She has something too of the Dinah in her, preaching on the village green in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Indeed, I know Dinah’s preaching so well, she’s as real to me as the Hope students, more real in that I know her better and have known her much longer – that I wonder if I am not overlaying her onto Christiana? And that can’t be quite right because Dinah is a very different kind of person to Christiana, and yet…and I’m wondering too – of course Miss Trickett knew Dinah! Yet Christiana is really more like D.H Lawrence’s Ursula, now, why is that? Is it her dress that is making me think that? Is it the ‘northernness’?
But I am reading on: I am rather shocked at the instant dismissal by this man Nicholas (we don’t know him yet) of Christiana’s theology, so that I almost stumble over the word ‘flimsy’ and then I am thinking about Christiana’s unknowingness. Her lack of self-consciousness extends in every direction. For of course – that is the point. I return to ‘flimsy’. To Christiana, I see, seeing her as a whole, the theology is not flimsy because she has no self-consciousness about it. There simply is no other theology, no other way of thinking or speaking. Though the novel will show us otherwise.
This description I am giving you of reading is a long and necessarily slow account of what took place, as I read, in a couple of seconds. It is also a skimpy, superficial account, because I don’t have time and am not practised enough in self-observation to write about it thoroughly. But I believe, for all that, it is an account of what happens as I read.
This is a book about how the world breaks the world of childhood. It might be a rewrite of Mrs Gaskell’s magnificent, under-appreciated Cousin Phyllis. But only if something like Lawrence were also thrown into the mix. For Rachel Trickett has a wonderfully Lawrentian grasp on how ‘personality’ sometimes fails and leaves something deeper exposed. She is fine writer of row dialogue (yes ‘row’ not ‘raw’). See chapter 26 where Christiana’s aunt and her father have a long, restrained family row about their girl. This is true and brilliantly observed. But what Rachel Trickett is mainly interested in in this novel is how the big world shatters the self-contained security of the little one. Once I started to concentrate on it, it became a very powerful book. Recommended. Thanks, Brian.
PS She came from Wigan, and David Cecil was her tutor at Lady Margaret Hall 1942-45.
From her Obituary in The Independent:
When she became a tutor at St Hugh’s in 1954, her academic writing was overshadowed by her first novel, The Return Home (1952), which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and was hailed throughout the press: Joyce Cary reviewed it as “truly original”. She had also written the libretto for Joubert’s opera Antigone. None of this was to the taste of the Principal of St Hugh’s, an historian of Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries: “Let us have no more, Miss Trickett, in these lower forms.” There were five more novels. And another libretto.