Culture Shock: Notes from a Big Country

Not long ago, Richard E. Grant interviewed Bill Bryson for the Penguin podcast. It was about Bryson’s new book The Road to Little Dribbling, which I am very keen to get my hands on (Hello Santa!), but in it Bryson also talked about what it was like to return to America to live after having spent his entire adult life in Britain. This was the experience which led to a series of columns in an American magazine, which in turn became…

Notes from a Big Country, by Bill Bryson

I can’t quite believe I haven’t written about Bill Bryson yet. If I am anyone’s number one fan, I am his. He’s known primarily as a travel writer, but over the years he’s written about science, Shakespeare, the English language, history, and he even wrote a memoir. He’s also incredibly funny. I realise I have a predilection for comedy books, but that’s for an excellent and exceedingly high-minded reason: they cheer me up, and I defy anyone to read even just the first column in Notes from a Big Country and not crack at least a bit of a smile.

After arriving in the UK as a young man, Bryson met the woman who would become his wife, and fell in love with her and Britain simultaneously (his words – really, go listen to the Penguin podcast). And here he stayed, until the mid-90s when he, his wife, and four kids packed up and moved back to the US. Bryson found that since he’d been away, both he and America had changed somewhat. All the usual householder/adult-type activities he had only ever done in Britain, so even a trip to get Polyfilla, known to the Americans as ‘spackle’, is something of an adventure. He manages, just about, and is consistently both confused by and in adoration of aspects of his ‘home’ country that are at once familiar and alien. Is there such a thing as reverse culture shock?

Bryson could, and indeed, does get a healthy dose of humour out of anything. I just opened my copy of Notes from a Big Country at random, and came across this bit about a day at the beach: “I had a little nap and woke up to find that Jimmy was burying me up to my chest in sand, which was fine except that he had started at my head and I managed to get so sunburned that a dermatologist invited me to a convention in Cleveland the following week as an exhibit.”

Or how about this on his mother cooking for Thanksgiving? Which is, in fact, today – Happy Thanksgiving! “My mother was not a great cook, you see…My mother is a kindly, cheerful, saintly soul, and when she dies she will go straight to heaven, but believe me no one is going to say, ‘Oh thank goodness you’re here, Mrs. Bryson. Can you fix us something to eat?’”

Or, on getting stuck in a loft hatch: “Normally, your wife can hear things that no one else on earth can hear. She can hear a dab of jam fall onto a carpet two rooms away. She can hear spilled coffee being furtively mopped up with a good bathtowel. She can hear dirt being tracked across a clean floor. She can hear you just thinking about doing something you shouldn’t do. But get yourself stuck in a loft hatch and suddenly it is as if she has been placed in a soundproof chamber.”

And it’s a sweet sort of humour too, without that particular ‘isn’t life ghastly’ attitude that some comedy writers have. It’s just sort of cosily familiar. I mean, who hasn’t got stuck in a loft hatch. Right? Yes?

Notes from a Big Country is essentially what might reasonably be called ‘ramblings on a theme’. You should read it because it’s frequently hilarious, sometimes insightful, occasionally weird, and chock-full of the kind of stories that your kindly, if slightly accident-prone, uncle might tell after a few beers. Bryson’s rediscovery of his birth country is an enjoyable and easy read which you can dip in and out of, or binge read like a crazy person. Either way works.

P.S. Seriously, go listen to the Penguin podcast. It’s here, in case you didn’t get the hint already.  

Culture Shock: My Favourite Wife

Culture shock is helpfully defined by Wikipedia as: ‘the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.’ This is the first in a series of posts on novels that address this phenomenon. Fun fact, which is of questionable veracity but which still amuses me: members of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard used to be quartered in tall towers to help with their homesickness. The logic being, of course, that as they were from the mountains they’d feel better being up high. I wonder if it worked.

My Favourite Wife, by Tony Parsons

What constitutes infidelity? Where’s the line that didn’t ought to be crossed? Is it a smile? A kiss? More? Is it the moment when a person starts to keep secrets from their spouse? Or is it the moment where that person starts to feel guilty?

Bill Holden is an up-and-coming lawyer. He and his wife Becca and daughter Holly relocate to Shanghai for his work, moving into the Paradise Mansions apartment complex. Their neighbors, it transpires, are predominantly the ‘second wives’ of wealthy men; their ‘husbands’ generally around at weekends only, or whenever they can get away from their actual, legal wives. Hm.

This new world is not one of clean-cut morals. Now, Bill initially looks down on the men who can’t keep it in their pants. He sees his colleagues going home with girls in clubs, and shakes his head. He sees the ‘husbands’ who visit the apartment complex, and wonders how they can live with themselves. Bill knows how lucky he is, with his loving wife and beautiful daughter. But when little Holly’s asthma starts to become a problem, Becca takes her back to London. Bill makes the acquaintance of rather neglected ‘second wife’ JinJin and then…well…when exactly did he cross that line? He can’t even tell. Suddenly he’s turned into one of the men he initially despised. This, to me, is the culture shock at the heart of the novel: not so much West versus East, although that too, but monogamy crashing up against accepted unofficial polygamy, or straight-up casual liaisons. Despite the best of intentions, Bill goes native.

I find it hard to explain why I return to this novel over and over. It might be how Tony Parsons makes it so difficult to straight-up demonise Bill in the way that I feel I want to. It might be that it’s such an excellent portrait of the messiness of human relationships. It’s also probably because I’m an armchair traveller and I love the descriptions of Shanghai even when they’re nasty. My Favourite Wife doesn’t pretend to be great literature, but you should read it for a take on the marriage-falls-apart plot that’s more challenging than the rest. It might not be the most cheerful, but it has a strange magic that always keeps me turning the pages.

World War II Novels: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

In the 1953 movie Young Bess, Princess Elizabeth, played by Jean Simmons, tells her father (grumpy old Henry VIII) that “these islands have never been invaded.” He rebukes her, telling her she has forgotten the Normans. She responds, “but they were us or they couldn’t have done it.” Bess was right then and she’s still right in 2015 – it’s been almost a thousand years since Britain has been invaded by a foreign army. Well, mainland Britain, that is.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Between June 30th and July 4th 1940, the Nazis arrived in the Channel Islands and began an occupation which would last until May 1945. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of this occupation told through the eyes of various residents and members of the Society of the title. Revealed through letters (epistolary! My favourite!), it is at first glance a fairly simple tale of people doing the best they can in difficult times (also my favourite). Oh, but it is so much deeper than that.

How the book came to exist is a great story in itself; Shaffer was researching a biography in Cambridge, but she hit something of a wall decided to take a trip to Guernsey for a break. Once there, heavy fog closed the airport and she was stuck. She ended up spending her time reading about the Occupation in the airport’s bookshop; twenty years later, she based The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on what she’d learned. Tragically, Shaffer died before the book was published, and her niece Annie Barrows continued with it and so is listed as a co-author. When I tell you that this book is unique I really mean it, and it breaks my heart a little to think that this is Shaffer’s only work.

My mum recommended The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to me, and she said: ‘the heroine is not who you think she is.’ To begin with, it looks like the heroine is Juliet Ashton, an author living in London in 1946 who is looking for subject matter for her next book. One day, entirely out of the blue she receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams of Guernsey. He is a member of the titular Society seeking to buy more books for them to read, books being rather rare on Guernsey at this time in history (I shudder). As their friendship deepens he encourages other members to share their experiences of the Nazi Occupation with Juliet, who gradually realises that she has found exactly what she was looking for – an excellent book idea. 

The Society itself was a spur-of-the-moment desperate invention by its founder and the true heroine, Elizabeth McKenna. After an entirely illicit pig-slaughter and feast, the future members are found having broken the German-imposed curfew. Elizabeth apologises to the Nazi officers who have stopped them, and persuades them that the group were, in fact, having a meeting of their Literary Society; they were reading Elizabeth’s German Garden and lost track of the time. This lie becomes the truth, and the members become enmeshed in each others’ lives and discover the power of literature to lift them out of the fear and pain and starvation that the Occupation has brought. A side note: it wasn’t until the end of the war that Britain allowed Red Cross ships to take food to the Channel Islands, assuming that the Germans would simply steal it. For the islanders, hunger was another and even more brutal enemy than the Nazis.

Moments of human greatness mix with moments of terrible human evil again and again and again. Often these are hidden in letters about simple, mundane things – I think it’s in a particular letter about bread that we hear about the German habit of not feeding the Todt workers, forced labourers from Eastern Europe, but instead turning them loose at night to find their own food. And yet, while Shaffer’s light touch and excellent grasp of the comic versus the tragic will leave you moved and saddened, you will finish the novel with renewed faith in humanity. I defy you not to feel your eyes well up a bit when the children, evacuated before the invasion, finally make it back five years later.

If you’re going through a rough time, I prescribe this book. Trust me. And I’ll tell you this now: it has a happy ending.

World War II Novels: My Enemy’s Cradle, by Sara Young

Ever heard of the Lebensborn? I hadn’t. This was the SS-sponsored initiative which, in a nutshell, encouraged unmarried women who were “racially pure” to have children with “racially pure” men – usually officers of the SS. The children of these unions would then be adopted by good Aryan parents. During the war, this program was expanded out to the occupied countries (Aryans only, of course). I didn’t know about this nasty, sordid bit of history until I picked up…

My Enemy’s Cradle, by Sara Young

my enemys cradle

This is a novel powered by fear and hope in equal measure. Cousins Anneke and Cyrla look very alike – blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin. They live together in the Netherlands with Anneke’s parents, and appear to all intents and purposes as if they are just like anyone else. Except, Cyrla is half-Jewish and is in hiding from the authorities. This causes quite some tension, especially with Anneke’s father. The situation becomes considerably worse when Anneke announces that she is pregnant with the child of a German soldier, Karl. This is still the 1940s; out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a terrible and shaming thing, and even more so given that Anneke has sullied herself with a member of the hated occupying forces.

Basically everything falls apart. Someone slips a threatening note under the door, so someone knows Cyrla’s secret. Karl is nowhere to be found. Anneke, about to be sent away to a Lebensborn home, knows that once it’s born her child can only be released to it’s father and his family or it will be taken from her. Both girls are thrown into despair, but it is Cyrla who is given a way out. With the help of Isaac, a young Jewish man with Resistance connections, Cyrla takes Anneke’s place in the Lebensborn.

Cyrla is afraid almost all the time. She is in danger for every single moment of the novel, and that can take its toll on the reader. On occasion I had to put the book down and have a little breather. But actually, that demonstrates the power of this story. It’s supposed to be difficult, it’s supposed to be painful at times – these are women in an occupied country, whose bodies are not even fully their own, doing what they must to ensure their own survival. The scenes between Cyrla and Isaac I found particularly tough, but for different and spoiler-filled reasons. Just take my word for it. The institutional harshness can also be hard to take; newborn infants are taken from their mothers almost immediately and put into a nursery where they are not exactly nurtured. Many of these children would grow up to be shunned after the war, and knowing that (thanks Wikipedia!) colours my rereading somewhat.

I did say there was hope, and there is. Kindnesses are found in unexpected places, and where betrayal might be expected there is loyalty instead. Cyrla herself has a great capacity for love and for goodness, which remains even when it might be reasonably expected to have been ground out of her. And not just Cyrla, certain other characters retain their humanity even under extreme pressure. You know I’m all for triumph-of-the-human-spirit novels, and My Enemy’s Cradle definitely falls into that category.

Read this for a popular-type novel that’s surprisingly hard hitting. It’s a page-turner for sure, and a love story of a sort, but it also explores a particularly dark and lesser-known portion of war history in a way that feels authentic. I never felt that the narrative was forced, and given the twisty plot that’s worth saying; instead, I felt that I was seeing people under extreme stress and in the actual desperate times that call for desperate measures. Finally, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this about a novel that deals with such dark subject matter, read this when you need a book that gives a really good uplifting payoff. It seems to be all fashionable at the moment to leave the reader hanging with a really bleak resolution, but Young, bless her, gives us an ending which promises happiness, and sometimes a reader needs a bit of that.

World War II Novels: House-Bound, by Winifred Peck

We think we know World War Two so well, don’t we. We know the causes, the major battles, the horrors, the conclusion, the aftermath. We know the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Pearl Harbour, the D-Day landings, shaking hands with the Russians “as far to the east as possible” (thanks Churchill) not only from history lessons but from seeing film after film about the action on the front lines. The people left behind, however, tend to get less cultural attention, probably because the actual fighting and spying and inventing the bouncing bomb (why yes, I do love The Dambusters) is the more ‘exciting’ bit. But what about the people who aren’t having all that ‘excitement’?

House-Bound, by Winifred Peck


Novels about the war written while it was going on always fascinate me. Peck wrote House-Bound in 1942; we, sitting comfortably in the 21st century. know that the war will be over in three years. Peck didn’t, and heroine Rose Fairlaw doesn’t either as she tries to get a grip on her rambling house without domestic help. For all she knows, this could go on for years. For all she knows, she might spend the rest of her life living under Nazi rule. Fortunately for Ruth, she’s so preoccupied with her house that she doesn’t have much time to think about that.

This sounds like a frivolous novel. A 1940s non-working wife in Edinburgh (aka ‘Castleburgh’), kept by her husband’s money, has a domestic crisis. All the ‘help’ has been called up for the war effort! What’s a lady to do? Why, she must learn to manage her own house, of course! I expected this to be a comedy of manners, a light-hearted read with the moral message that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. And it sort of is…a bit. After trying and failing to manage by herself, Ruth eventually locates one Mrs Childe, who comes a few mornings a week and essentially trains Ruth in keeping a house. In doing her best to keep up appearances, Ruth becomes exhausted…and notices that her husband Stuart is not particularly moved by her Herculean efforts to keep his standard of living from slipping. Throw in a sympathetic American major who seems to know his way around a kitchen, and Ruth’s mind starts to wander.

The complicated meshing of step-children and step-parents surprised me in a book from this era. Ruth and Stuart’s marriage was essentially one of convenience – she was a widow with a daughter, he was a widower with a son – and even though they went on to have another son together, the distance between them has never been bridged. Those children, Flora, Mickey, and Tom, all have their own problems. Flora blames Ruth for everything that has ever gone wrong in her life, Mickey is so beloved he is stifled, and Tom has been his mother’s crutch for years. With both boys away at war, Ruth’s fear for them is a constant background hum in her mind, which is harder to shut out when all she thinks about is domestic drudgery. Still, with the world going mad outside, Ruth keeps herself house-bound because this is the only place where she has any sort of control.

At heart this is a novel about relationships, and relationships under stress. Each member of the family is in some way walled off from the others, and while some manage to escape, others do not. The fortress-like house is a powerful symbol, with its eventual bombing representing the breaking down of the walls between mother and daughter, husband and wife, parents and children. It also is quite clearly meant to demonstrate the crashing down of the old way of life, and Ruth is almost pleased when the house which has been breaking her is cut down to size.

Read this book to see a side of the war that doesn’t get quite so much attention – the mundane struggles on the Home Front. Not that House-Bound is mundane, but it brings the war down to a day-to-day level, a grind to carry on despite fear and want. Also read this for a good laugh at Ruth’s initial helplessness in the face of sweeping the stairs, and at daughter Flora’s gothic antics. Finally, let the record show that if Major Hosmer wants to show up and clean my kitchen, I am more than happy to let him.

Unlikely heroes: Sydney Carton, of A Tale of Two Cities

Before I picked up this book, I had read exactly two Dickens novels. David Copperfield, which I read in a caffeine fuelled haze at university and remember almost nothing of (except for the fact that I turned up at my class and found I was supposed to have read North and South that week), and A Christmas Carol. Both, though, fit with the general opinion of Dickens; the novelist of Clerkenwell, of the slums and the rookeries, of smog, of deprived orphans. But not so…

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

tale of two cities

This is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, a novel about the transformative power of love, which is, after all, “always so much stronger than hate”. We begin with the ‘recalling to life’ of Doctor Manette, who has recently been retrieved from a French prison – the infamous Bastille. He is mentally disturbed, with a strange compulsion to make shoes. An English banker, Mr. Lorry, has brought him to his daughter Lucie who was born after his imprisonment and whom he has never before met. Lucie, with calm and loving patience, nurses her father back to health and sanity. Her love and her care quite simply transform her father from a madman into the man he was. From this moment, I was hooked – this was not the miserable Dickens I had expected.

(Side note: there is a theory that it was around the time of writing in the late 1850s that Dickens had just begun an affair with eighteen-year-old actress. I really can’t help but wonder if that’s where this particular plot line comes from, but I digress.)

Dickens then jumps the narrative ahead five years to the trial of one Charles Darnay, a French émigré who is accused of treason. Lucie has been forced to give evidence against him (because of reasons), but Darnay is nevertheless freed because of today’s unlikely hero: the drunk but brilliant Sydney Carton. The chief accuser, Darnay’s manservant, is forced to admit that he cannot tell Carton and Darnay apart because they are so alike, and so Darnay goes free. Darnay and Carton both develop a friendship with the Manettes, and both fall in love with Lucie. Darnay gets to marry her, and Carton gets to experience the transformative power of simply loving her. He determines to be a better man, for love of Lucie. Awww.

Obviously, though, it’s not exactly all sunshine. I suspect you know how the novel begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and I am also willing to bet you know how it ends, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” These almost-last lines are spoken by Carton, when the bloody French Revolution has turned all Paris red. Dickens has shown us the horror that infected men and women alike (Madame Defarge sitting knitting under the guillotine with her friend the Vengeance, counting heads as they count stitches) when the common people got to kick back against the cruelty that had been inflicted upon them by the aristocracy. Darnay has answered a desperate letter from a former servant, has returned to France, been arrested and eventually sentenced to die. Taking advantage of their likeness to each other, Carton steps in and saves the husband of the woman he loves, sacrificing himself, and dying in Darnay’s place. As he ascends the scaffold, he says those words and a worthless man becomes worth a great deal, all because of love.

I’ve missed out a LOT here. A Tale of Two Cities is a wonderful and fascinating tangle of characters and events, including an atheist graverobber, a vicious Marquis, justice/revenge across the generations, and the unfortunate conjunction of circumstances that lead to Darnay’s sentencing in the first place. Dickens gives an account of the Revolution that chilled me right to the core, but he still provides those small touches of comic relief that he is so famous for. Read this for a story that will keep you awake until the small hours, and that will make you want to cry, scream, laugh, and cheer. Dickens is considered to be one of our national treasures, but it wasn’t until I read this book I finally understood why.

Unlikely heroes: John, of The Scapegoat

Sorry for the serious delay here people, but between a grueling business trip and a nasty cold (I bet I caught it from the plane) I’ve slacked off. Apologies. What can I say? I’m no hero.

The Scapegoat, by Daphne du Maurier


Written some twenty years after the roaring success of Rebecca and set in the mid-fifties, The Scapegoat could be said to have some of the same themes: identity, imposter syndrome, and a sense of a weighty past represented by a large and perplexing house. I bought this novel because I was going on holiday to the Loire valley in France, and I wanted to read something set thereabouts. The Scapegoat was close enough. Rereading it ahead of this post, I realised that it was the first time I had actually been at home to do so – I have only read it on trips to that same part of France. I have to say, reading it in situ lends a poignancy to it, but it’s still a wonderful book when read in the Home Counties.

The premise requires a suspension of disbelief. In a small French town, an Englishman, John, meets a Frenchman, Jean. They look exactly alike; they are doubles in every single way. John is even mistaken for Jean moments before they meet. For his own reasons, Jean proceeds to get John very drunk and, we assume, also drugs him. John wakes up in Jean’s hotel room in Jean’s pyjamas, with Jean’s oblivious driver waiting to take him home to the château. He protests, of course, but decides to go along with it rather than have a doctor sent for and be pronounced mad.

To John’s great surprise, no one realises he is not Jean. Not the mother, an invalid hiding away in her tower, not the daughter, a strange flighty girl, not the wife, tremulous and pregnant and sick, not the bitter and silent sister. or brother or the sister-in-law, or anyone at all except the dog. No one in the house is happy, the family glass-works is about to go bust, and there’s no money whatsoever, but in his desire to belong John sets himself to fixing the family of his doppelgänger, which has been broken by war and the aforementioned financial woes.

The wounds of the occupation are still very raw in the family of The Scapegoat, and I think that’s something that I’ve not found explored much in English-language fiction. What happened after all the fighting, when the collaborators, the Resistance members, and the bystanders all had to look at each other and work out how to live together again? John sees the war with an outsider’s detachment, until he learns the reason why Jean’s sister hasn’t spoken to him for over a decade. You can really tell that John is from a country that hasn’t been invaded in a thousand years, and du Maurier handles that difference in psychology very well. John says at the beginning of the novel how much he wants to be French. Well, du Maurier seems to say, here you go, this is what it means!

This post was supposed to be about unlikely heroes. Well, Jean is the likely hero. He’s a rich, dashing Count with a magnificent war record as a Resistance fighter. John is a lecturer, belonging nowhere, and a little pathetic. But while Jean abandons his family – has, in fact, been abandoning them daily for years – John sees unhappy people and steps in to make things right as best he can. Not to give away the ending, but John becomes and remains determined to protect them, even from themselves. The essentially deceptive act on which the entire novel is founded becomes a moral imperative; to do nothing and leave these people to their fate is something John cannot countenance, even when he may be exposed as an imposter.

Reading this book will make you ask yourself questions about family, identity, bravery, loyalty, honesty, and forgiveness. Also read it for a more (in the end) uplifting and less cynical du Maurier tale, which still has all the brilliance of her other works including that sense of place that she does so well. It may also give you an urge to go and stay in a French château, which you obviously must do, and of course, take The Scapegoat with you.

Unlikely Heroes: Alden Pyle, of The Quiet American

I think it would be safe to say that the desire to do good is a frequent feature of a hero’s character. But what about when that desire doesn’t do any good at all? What about when good intentions really do pave the way to Hell? Is a hero still a hero if his attempts to do good are misguided?

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

quiet american

How can I possibly describe how absorbing this novel is? Whenever I reread The Quiet American I get consumed by it, to the point that when I have to stop I find myself surprised to be a woman in 21st century England, rather than a cynical middle-aged male journalist in Vietnam in the 1950s. I’d been thinking of writing about this novel for a while, and when I was reading critic David Lodge’s latest book Lives in Writing and found it contained not one but two essays on Graham Greene, I was inspired to go back to the book he calls Greene’s “last fully achieved masterpiece” and to tell you to read it.

When the book opens, narrator Thomas Fowler has been living in Indochina and covering the war between the French and the Viet Minh for three years. He has a wife in England who won’t divorce him because she is, like Greene was himself, a Catholic. Fowler also has a live-in Vietnamese girlfriend named Phuong who he takes entirely for granted, and who seems to exist to keep him in opium. The narrative begins when Fowler is befriended by new arrival Alden Pyle, the ‘quiet American’ of the title, whose youthful optimism and idealism Fowler finds close to madness. Pyle is the hero; at least, he certainly believes that he is. He wants to save Vietnam by the introduction of a ‘third force’ – not Communism or colonialism but something in between the two. He also wants to save Phuong from Fowler, who can never offer her the safety and security of marriage that Pyle believes she should have.

Every step of the way Pyle believes he is doing The Right Thing. When he follows Fowler to a battlefield at the risk of his life to inform him he’s going to attempt to steal his girl, when he exposes Fowler as having lied to Phuong about getting a divorce, and even when his desperate belief in the ‘third force’ leads to the death of innocent people and risks Phuong’s life; Pyle remains entirely convinced he has acted honourably. And, by many standards, he has. It would be easy to rewrite The Quiet American from Pyle’s point of view. To cast Fowler as the evil lecher with his claws into innocent young Phuong, trying to frustrate Pyle’s heroic quest to save Vietnam from itself with the wonderful way of America – yes, that would be easy, but it would entirely miss the point.

The school of literary criticism known as ‘reader-response’ focuses on the experience of the reader and their understanding of a text. My understanding of The Quiet American is that Greene, in the years of his declining Catholicism, used this book to shred the idea of ‘goodness’. Pyle ought to be a true and proper hero, but he doesn’t give a damn for the deaths of the innocent or the even feelings of the woman he professes to love. The shining saviour…isn’t. Doesn’t that sound like something the Great Catholic Novelist (a designation Greene hated) would write about, as he was in the process of losing faith?

Read The Quiet American because it’s one of the greatest works by one of our greatest authors. In one slim volume, he covers colonialism, imperialism, the personal as political, race, and the ethical rot that can set in inside a should-be hero. Read it to see inside a historical moment and the attitudes from which grew the Vietnam and even Iraq wars. Read it and fear the Alden Pyles of the world. As Fowler learns, there’s no such thing as the quiet American.

Unlikely Heroes: Atticus Finch, of To Kill a Mockingbird

What makes a hero? That’s a big question. A hero is usually the main character in their story, but not necessarily. A hero is usually moral and does the right thing, but again not necessarily. A hero is often brave, is usually good, and is always determined. My favourite heroes, though, are the unlikely ones who don’t look particularly heroic, and it’s those that I’m going to talk about in this series of posts.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

to kill a mockingbird

I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird in Aberdeen airport solely because it was on offer. I knew nothing about it but the basic premise of the narrative, and that it was on the UK school curriculum for a while. I’d even managed to avoid all the publicity about Harper Lee’s forthcoming new novel, although I’m not quite sure how. Reading on the flight back to London, I found the limited expectations I had being blown out of the water. Somewhere over the Pennines I fell in love.
Atticus Finch is a most unlikely hero, especially to his daughter Scout. Six-year-old Scout being the narrator was a pleasant surprise; I can’t say I expected a book about the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman to be told through the eyes of a little girl. It is her biased viewpoint with a very particular idea of masculinity that sets Atticus up as being decidedly unheroic. He doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t drink, he reads a lot, and he is older than everyone else’s father. He is quiet, cerebral, modest and unassuming. To Scout, he is a good parent but not a hero.
Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill spend their summers in 1930s small-town Alabama playing games and telling stories about the shut-in Boo Radley who lives down the road. Most of the first part of the book is focused on these games. In reading this, I occasionally felt a little frustrated. Where did this fit into the narrative? But then I saw that ever so slowly, Lee was introducing the reader to the Finch family and its dynamics, to the town, and to the wider community of Maycomb County. The racism, the classism, the expected behaviour from each and every person according to their background and family – without understanding this, the rest of the book would make no sense.
The second part of the book revolves around Atticus’s defense of the accused rapist Tom Robinson. The town is generally scandalised that as a court-appointed defender, Atticus intends to actually defend his client. This is very brave. He explicitly explains that if he did not do so, he would no longer consider himself fit to raise his own children even though he knows that they risk ostracism and worse by his decision. A moral hero if ever there was one. Atticus also displays courage in physical defiance. Before the trial even begins, Atticus spends the night sitting in front of the jail house. He knows what Scout and the boys discover when they go to find him; Tom Robinson is at risk of being lynched. Atticus sits unarmed, knowing he will likely have to face down a mob. And so he does, with a little help from Scout who stands before the men, their neighbors, and talks to them in her best ‘company’ voice. They back down, and it is only later Scout understands what her father was doing, and what she herself did. This intense scene will stay with me for a long time.
If you don’t know already, I won’t tell you the outcome of the trial. I will tell you that Boo Radley comes to play an important part in its aftermath, and that both he and Scout have their own places in the pantheon of unlikely heroes. But Atticus, outside the jail facing down a mob, in the courtroom taking stand against the consuming racism of his time, and afterwards facing the consequences for his children, displays the deep moral conviction that makes him do what is right despite its dangers that we expect of a true hero.
Read To Kill a Mockingbird for brilliant writing that brings a stratified society into sharp focus, for a narrator that the reader cannot help but love, and for a brave hero who fights injustice no matter what the cost.

Great Literary Heroines: Jane Eyre, of Jane Eyre

I thought I would never write about my favourite heroine. Too many people have written about her, her novel, and her author for me to have anything of any note to say, but in a series on heroines I just couldn’t miss her out.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

jane eyre

There is a theory that Jane Eyre was written as a sort of wish fulfillment. Charlotte Brontë fell in unrequited love with her married Belgian professor in 1844, three years before the publication of Jane Eyre. The theory goes that Charlotte (we’re on first name terms, here) wrote herself as Jane, and Prof. Heger as Rochester as a way of dealing with her feelings. Personally, I’m not sure I agree. For one, Jane Eyre is not a love story. It’s a story with love in it, but in itself it is part coming-of-age novel and part heroic saga.

Be warned, spoilers everywhere, but this book is almost 170 years old so…

Jane is raised by her aunt, who hates her. She sends Jane away to a miserable school where the pupils are half-starved, and her only friend dies. Jane remains at the school as a teacher, until she decides to advertise and seek a position as a governess. This first act of the novel is usually skipped through in the many and varied cinematic adaptations, but it sets Jane’s character for the rest of the book. Because she has been treated so unjustly and yet met good people – her friend Helen Burns, her teacher Miss Temple – who instil genuinely Christian values in her, she develops a solid sense of right and wrong. This sustains her right the way through. Without knowing Jane’s childhood, her later decisions make no sense.

When she arrives at Thornfield to be governess to Adele, ward of her new employer Mr. Rochester, she accepts that life will be dull but she is well-fed, Adele is loving, and she has a friend in the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax. Her first meeting with Mr. Rochester happens when she is out walking and he is arriving home unexpectedly; she startles his horse, which throws him. And, right then and there he falls in love with her immediately. Excuse the emphasis, but I didn’t actually realise this until a much more astute friend of mine pointed it out. From this point on, everything Mr. Rochester does (spending time with Jane in deep philosophical discussions, making her his confidante, attempting to make her jealous by courting another woman) is calculated to get Jane to fall in love with him and declare herself. And it works. She does fall in love with him, she does declare herself, and right at the moment when she thinks she has lost him to the other woman (ugh, Blanche Ingram) he asks her to marry him. And, THE END.

But sadly no. On the wedding day, it is discovered that he has a mad wife in the attic (frankly, earlier on when a mysterious someone attacked a guest and Jane had to sit up all night nursing said guest, she really ought to have asked more questions). Jane leaves Thornfield, wanders on the moors, enacts a scene which always makes me cry in which she tries to barter her gloves for bread, but is eventually found by Rev. St. John Rivers and is taken in by his sisters. Rivers helps her to set up a school for the local girls, and she gets her own little cottage. He even helps her to find a long-lost relative who has left her a considerable sum of money. And, THE END.

Still no. Rivers wants to go and be a missionary, and he proposes to Jane that she come along as his wife. Here her moral sense steps in just as it did when she left Thornfield. Jane knows on an instinctive level that it would be wrong to marry a man she does not love and who does not love her. Even though it would be very convenient for her to do so, she stands her ground and remains. And just as well, because one strange day she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her through the ether (mystical occurrences were a big thing in the nineteenth century; ether, ectoplasm, mediums, the works). She returns to Thornfield to find it a wreck of a place. There was a terrible fire, and Mr. Rochester was badly injured attempting to save his mad wife from leaping to her death. He failed, and is now blind.

When Jane goes to visit him at his run-down second house, Ferndean, what follows is one of the happiest, more genuinely joyful scenes I have ever read in my life. Read it. Please. Go and buy Jane Eyre and read it if only for this scene between two people who love each other so much.

I’ve missed out a lot here. I could have written more about context, about feminism, about the legacy left by Jane Eyre, about its reception, about post-colonialism even (the mad wife is from the East Indies), but instead I’m sticking to the story, because it is a magnificent one. A poor, plain girl makes her own way in the world by dint of her own efforts and stays true to herself and her values every step of the way. She will not be swayed from what she knows to be right, even when it hurts her almost beyond bearing. In dark moments of life, we could do a lot worse than to think to ourselves, what would Jane do?