A Note on Four Fictional Heroines



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It was probably not a good idea to read Colm Tóibín’s recently published Nora Webster immediately after finishing Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. My impatience with the former novel was further compounded by reading Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton first published in 1848. Mary Costello’s  Academy Street which, like Tóibín’s novel, appeared in 2014 somewhat restored my sympathy with the twentyfirst century fictional heroine.

Gaskell’s heroine serves as a device to illustrate the horrors of industrial revolution Manchester. Will Mary Barton be seduced by her wealthy admirer? Will she survive? Will she have enough to eat? Will she end up on the streets like her Aunt Esther? These are the questions that preoccupy us as we are carried along by Gaskell’s narrative. This book should be read by history students of all ages. It conveys the grim realities of those times better than any history text.

Brontë’s Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is of a different kind. Blessed with an education unattainable to the likes of Mary Barton and a character and intellect which endeared her to many of those she encountered, she is, nevertheless, cast upon the world without family or funds and must forage for herself in the best tradition of the bildungsroman.

Mary Costello’s novel is well researched resulting in a wonderful sense of time and place as we follow the heroine, Tess, from Ireland to America. There is a cinematographic feel to the novel. It is as if we are following Tess from a short distance. We do not get inside her head but we watch her every move in such a way that we identify with her. Her patience and stoicism are impressive.

Then, there is Nora Webster. The author explores her character forensically. She is a recent widow. We are invited to pity her. Try as I can I just cannot feel sorry for her. She is not a nice woman. There was a reference to a time when she was cruel to a contemporary in her youth. This comes back to bite her when she encounters the same woman in the course of the employment she is forced to take up in her widowhood. She is short with people. She demolishes her younger son’s school principal. There had to be a more diplomatic way to fight the boy’s corner one feels. You wouldn’t have wanted Nora Webster in your class in school. You wouldn’t have wanted her as a sister-in-law or a colleague. The main merit in this book is as a guide to music. Nora takes an interest in classical music which puts her on the road to recovery from the shock of her husband’s death. There is a wonderfully detailed account of her growing appreciation of music. I might even use it myself as a handbook to smarten myself up on the works of various composers. Nora lives in Enniscorthy. The town is recognisable but the sense of realism breaks down when Nora and her daughters go shopping in Dublin. In the late sixties. On a Saturday afternoon. I laughed out loud. Grafton Street was like a morgue after 1PM on a Saturday in those days. All shops were closed. Mary Costello is better on the accuracy of period detail.

Nora Webster is what they call nowadays ‘feisty’. We observe her growing in feistiness. Both Tess and Mary Barton are carried along by circumstance. Mary has lucky breaks, if one can call them breaks in 1848. Tess endures and arrives at the shores of calm.

Nora Webster enjoyed all the prestige of wifehood and, what is often overlooked, the prestige and sympathy attached to widowhood. She did not go hungry like Mary Barton. She did not have to conceal a side of her life like Tess. Nora Webster got to go to the races. She was even in the winners’ enclosure on four occasions in the sense that she had four intelligent, handsome children. She is not totally without funds. Mary Barton, Tess and Lucy Snowe struggle to get through the turnstiles. Alone. Theirs is an aloneness of which Nora Webster knew nothing in her own youth.

Of the four novels only Villette is written in the first person which probably goes some way to explaining why Lucy engages our sympathy the most. Her brand of feistiness has no truck with rudeness or sour provincial snappery. She is a survivor against all the odds through the power of her intellect. We’ll leave the last word to her.

“How I pity those whom mental pain stuns instead of rousing.”

I am adding Villette to my list of books to be re-read when I am in the nursing home.

The Irish death notice – a social study and inflated language.



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“Do you know who’s dead?” Our mothers perused the death notices in the Irish Independent unfailingly every day. Not turning up at a neighbour’s obsequies or not sending the obligatory mass card would be a serious omission. As we age we take on mother’s mantle and read the death notices ourselves. We have moved up a notch to The Irish Times and curse the fact that not everyone dies in the same paper. We have recourse to rip.ie and hope that we have not missed anyone.

Irish death notices are an interesting social study. I can recommend it to the twenty and thirtysomethings. It might smarten them up a bit about the social history of Ireland. One can play a game of guessing what part of the country the deceased is from just by reading the surname. There aren’t too many McGinleys in Kerry or McGillicuddys in Donegal. This is beginning to change with more social mobility and the first exotic Eastern European names have made an appearance. A study of the dramatically different first names of the generations can be a fun exercise. Granny Teresa is often the mother of Paddy and Eileen but she’s almost a dead cert to be the granny of Sharon and Karen and maybe even the great-gran of Jack, Chloe and Sophie. Try it. It’s uncanny. Elderly religious are dying at the rate of several a week. Has anyone noticed that they tend to come from very large families? Now what was going on there? Needless to say they are not entering the orders at the same rate as they are dying. Mention is often made of the former workplace of elderly men and single women but rarely of married women. This is a reminder of the days when married women in the public service had to quit the job. Spare a thought too for the single women who soldiered on alone. It’s all there in the death notices.

Death notices are couched in inflated language. They ooze clichés. I suspect that undertakers may be partly responsible here. Perhaps they press a formulaic announcement on mourners who may not be in a frame of mind to offer resistance. Huge numbers, we are told, ‘pass on’ (nobody dies anymore) ‘after a long illness bravely borne’. It would be a brave person who would complain in the face of such pressure to bear everything so heroically. I imagine if Uncle Joe was a crank of long standing his passing would still be couched in these silly terms. The deceased was invariably ‘in the tender loving care’ of X or Y nursing home or hospital. Hang on a minute. Medical professionals are obliged to care for us but to expect them to love us tenderly seems a bit unrealistic. They are just people doing a job. If our own families loved us tenderly we would be doing very well. Even that is not always the case. One could be forgiven for thinking that people these days are either suing medical personnel or thanking them in the most gushing terms. A little moderation please.

The dying person is said to pass on ‘surrounded by’ a loving family. ‘Surrounded by’ sounds positively frightening. Give the unfortunate person some air for God’s sake. I have heard nurses complain that it is sometimes difficult to get near the patient such is the press of relatives. Would ‘in the presence of’ sound a little less intimidating? ‘Surrounded by’ puts me in mind of those scenes from Dickens where some poor wretch is in extremis while an army of relatives seek to beat off the lawyers lest he be tempted to disinherit them. Mercifully feminism has seen off the dreadful term ‘relict’ to describe a widow. ‘Mary, relict of Michael’ was once ubiquitous. Meaning that Mary was part of the property he was leaving behind. We should give language more thought.
As I recall, provincial and evening papers are more given to long reams of doggerel verse. Or maybe that’s the In Memoriam announcements. Imported American notices seem excessive in the extreme. What a rí rá.  Many death notices end by suggesting that mourners donate to this or that charity. When did this start? It seems a little odd to be telling people to give money. I can’t quite get my head around this. Surely some things should be left to the discretion of the individual. It smacks of giving orders.

There is a solution to all this unthinking conformity. Each one of us should write out our own death notice well in advance. Dates etc can be filled in later. Keep it simple and truthful. There was one death notice in the past number of years which impressed by its brevity and honesty. It was that of a well known politician. It stated simply ‘Will be missed by those who loved him’. Now, that’s class.

The Cobbler and the Banker.  You should have listened guys.



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Jean de la Fontaine 1621 – 1695

In UCD in the old Earlsfort Terrace days in the mid and late sixties students of Commerce and Law were required to take two arts subjects in first year. Some took French and it became clear as the year went on that some chaps were contemptuous of this requirement and manifested their impatience in no uncertain terms.

The fables of La Fontaine were on the first year course. A nice Frenchman called M.Voisin gave these lectures. Each week he distributed printed notes on the fables in question. I vividly remember male Commerce students in the upper rows of the lecture theatre making paper airplanes of these notes and sending them floating downwards to the hapless M.Voisin who bore it all with equanimity.  I recall being shocked that people could be so rude. Female students never indulged in this carry-on of course. I thought that people privileged enough to be in the university would have sophisticated manners. Such innocence. At year’s end these guys moved on to their full-time economics and accounting and we were left in peace to continue our littérature française for the remaining years.

One of the fables on the course that first year was Le Savetier et le Financier, the Cobbler and the Banker. The cobbler is a happy carefree man who sings all day and never worries about money. The banker marvels at  his insouciance and offers to lend him 100 écus to invest which he says will make him secure. The cobbler takes the money and hides it but never knows another day’s peace. He worries constantly about thieves and other possible disasters which might befall his money. He returns to the banker to demand the restoration of his peace of mind.

Perusing the papers during the furore following the economic downturn it struck me that some individuals at the centre of the banking scandals were the same vintage as myself and a few had been commerce students in UCD at the very time when M.Voisin was enlightening us on La Fontaine. Could it be, I wondered,  that the engineers of paper planes had gone on to even more destructive activities in their later careers? C’est bien possible. Qui sait?  You should have paid attention boys. It would have been more profitable in the long run. We might all be singing all day just like the poor old cobbler before he ever had the misfortune to listen to the banker.

Here is the fable and translation. Thank you M.Voisin. You were a gent.

Jean de la Fontaine (1621 – 1695)  LE SAVETIER  ET LE FINANCIER 

Un Savetier chantait du matin jusqu’au soir :
C’était merveilles de le voir,
Merveilles de l’ouïr; il faisait des passages ,
Plus content qu’aucun des Sept Sages  .
Son voisin au contraire, étant tout cousu d’or,
Chantait peu, dormait moins encore.
C’était un homme de finance.
Si sur le point du jour, parfois il sommeillait,
Le Savetier alors en chantant l’éveillait,
Et le Financier se plaignait
Que les soins de la Providence
N’eussent pas au marché fait vendre le dormir,
Comme le manger et le boire.
En son hôtel il fait venir
Le Chanteur, et lui dit : Or çà, sire Grégoire,
Que gagnez-vous par an ?  Par an ? Ma foi, monsieur,
Dit avec un ton de rieur
Le gaillard Savetier, ce n’est point ma manière
De compter de la sorte ; et je n’entasse guère
Un jour sur l’autre : il suffit qu’à la fin
J’attrape le bout de l’année :
Chaque jour amène son pain.
Et bien, que gagnez-vous, dites-moi, par journée ?
Tantôt plus, tantôt moins, le mal est que toujours
(Et sans cela nos gains seraient assez honnêtes),
Le mal est que dans l’an s’entremêlent des jours
Qu’il faut chommer ; on nous ruine en fêtes .
L’une fait tort à l’autre ; et monsieur le Curé
De quelque nouveau saint charge toujours son prône .
Le Financier, riant de sa naïveté,
Lui dit : Je vous veux mettre aujourd’hui sur le trône.
Prenez ces cent écus : gardez-les avec soin,
Pour vous en servir au besoin.
Le Savetier crut voir tout l’argent que la terre
Avait, depuis plus de cent ans
Produit pour l’usage des gens.
Il retourne chez lui ; dans sa cave il enserre
L’argent et sa joie à la fois.
Plus de chant ; il perdit la voix
Du moment qu’il gagna ce qui cause nos peines.
Le sommeil quitta son logis,
Il eut pour hôte les soucis,
Les soupçons, les alarmes vaines.
Tout le jour il avait l’oeil au guet; et la nuit,
Si quelque chat faisait du bruit,
Le chat prenait l’argent : à la fin le pauvre homme
S’en courut chez celui qu’il ne réveillait plus.
Rendez-moi, lui dit-il, mes chansons et mon somme,
Et reprenez vos cent écus.


There was once a cobbler who was so light hearted that he sang from morning to night. It was wonderful to watch him at his work, and more wonderful still to hear his runs and trills. He was in fact happier than the Seven Sages.

This merry soul had a neighbour who was exactly the reverse. He sang little and slept less; for he was a financier, and made of money, as they say. Whenever it happened that after a sleepless night he would doze off in the early morning, the cobbler, who was always up betimes, would wake him up again with his joyful songs. “Ha!” thought the man of wealth, “what a misfortune it is that one cannot buy sleep in the open market as one buys food and drink!” Then an ideacame to him. He invited the cobbler to his house, where he asked him some questions.

“Tell me, Master Gregory, what do you suppose your earnings amount to in a year?”

“In a year,” laughed the cobbler, “that’s more than I know. I never keep accounts that way, nor even keep one day from another. So long as I can make both ends meet, that’s good enough for me!”

“Really!” replied the financier. “But what can you earn in one day?”

“Oh, sometimes more and sometimes less. The mischief of it is that there are so many fête days and high-days and fast-days crowded into the year, on which, as the priest tells us, it is wicked to work at all; and worse still he keeps on finding some new saint or other to give weight to his sermons. If it were not for that, cobbling would be a fine paying game.”

At this the wealthy man laughed. “Look here, my friend, to-day I’ll lift you to the seats of the mighty! Here is a hundred pounds. Guard them and use them with care.”

When the cobbler held the bag of money in his hand he imagined that it must be as much as would be coined in a hundred years.

Returning home he buried the cash in his cellar. Alas! he buried his joy with it, for there were no more songs. From the moment he came into possession of this wealth, the love of which is the root of all evil, his voice left him, and not only his voice, but his sleep also. And in place of these came anxiety, suspicion, and alarms; guests which abode with him constantly. All day he kept his eye on the cellar door. Did a cat make a noise in the night, then for a certainty that cat was after his money.

At last, in despair, the wretched cobbler ran to the financier whom he now no longer kept awake. “Oh, give me back my joy in life, my songs, my sleep; and take your hundred pounds again.”

   The Cazalet Chronicles


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images                                 Elizabeth Jane Howard 1923 – 2014

I read a certain amount of fiction in any given year but I could by no means be defined as a voracious consumer of same.  I dislike horror, crime, sci-fi or fantasy whether in book or movie form. You can keep The Hunger Games. I am baffled by the preference of some folks these days for what is called ‘young adult’ or ‘crossover’ fiction. I’m a grown up for God’s sake. I can’t be having what is known as chick lit either. The truth is I prefer reading history and biography and the kind of fiction that oozes verisimilitude. This past year has seen me working through  tomes on Gladstone and Browning and A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians. The detail of real lives rarely disappoints. I am a nosey parker.

How lovely then to stumble upon the five novels of The Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change make up the set published between 1990 and 2013. The final volume appeared in 2012, the year before Howard’s death at 91.

This is  the kind of realism one can really enjoy. The first volume introduces us to the extended Cazalet family on the eve of World War II. Howard  helpfully provides a family tree in each volume. The author describes them as ‘middle class’ but from where I’m standing they are as upper as one can get. They have all the trappings of upper class life, nannies, governesses, prep and public schools, cooks, chauffeurs, horses, gentlemen’s clubs. Three generations of the family flee to the grandparents’ country house in order to sit out the war. London houses are reluctantly abandoned by wives and children while grandfather Cazalet and his three sons commute to the offices of the family timber importing business. London becomes the place were one goes for lunches, dinners, afternoon teas, shopping expeditions and extra-marital affairs . Over the five tomes we witness the growing pains of an army of cousins, the fortunes of their fathers in civil and army life and the varied pressures on the womenfolk and their servants at a time of uncertainty.

Howard is unsurpassable in recording the minutiae of daily life, clothes, food, shops, dressmaking, gardens, baths, babies, rationing, illness, loss, and death.  Long vanished London department stores come to life.The fabrics and colours of suits and hats are lovingly described. Howard favours green when it comes to glamour.  Silk dresses and tweed suits feature strongly. The elder Cazalets can be at once generous and insensitive towards the hardship endured by servants. This is surely the last time in history when people were waited on hand and foot. By volume five servants are thinner on the ground.

Young people are left to their own devices. Emotionally neglected teenagers head for the same romantic disasters which have plagued their elders. Victorian prudery and that strange amorality characteristic of the upper classes strangely co-exist. ‘Falling in love’ is invariably an accident just like tripping on thepavement and the spouses of others are never off-limits. But perhaps my views are too informed by a convent school education. The heroine for me was Miss Milliment, the wise governess, whose life, constrained by a poverty not always so genteel, stood out in sharp contrast to that of the Cazalet wives.

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By volume three I really felt I was a Cazalet. The final volume takes us well into the fifties and a changed world.The earlier volumes have been made into a television series which has somehow escaped me. One wonders how producers could condense such richness of detail into a few episodes. I feel a boxed set coming on.

Howard died in 2013. The next excitement  was the discovery that she had written a memoir, Slipstream, published in 2002. I’ve just finished it. It turns out the Cazalets were the Howard family down to the smallest detail. Only the names were changed. Howard herself is a composite of Louise and Clary, two of the cousins in the five novels. Howard’s first husband was Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, son of the Antarctic explorer. Kingsley Amis was husband number three. One loses count of the number of affairs. All these relationships are described with disarming frankness. Howard lived an examined life. I had read just one other of her novels years ago, Falling, based on yet another episode in an incredible life.

A stunningly beautiful and highly intelligent woman, Howard’s misfortune was that she was never allowed to see herself in a positive light while she was growing up. Psychology had not been invented. Generous, hard working and possessed of the courtesy expected of her class, one feels that neither the novels nor the autobiography are self serving. She was accompanied into old age by troops of friends which surely must be the acid test of any individual. These five books were, for me, a bonanza of realism.



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