Final square -- revisiting Rebecca with the idea of a comparison review of the 3 audio versions I own (narrated by Anna Massey, Emma Fielding, and Emilia Fox, respectively).
I really enjoyed this book. Christopher was just too pure for the world, and I wanted to hug him, but he would have hated that. Christoper is an autistic boy who finds the neighbor's dog murdered. Initially he is blamed for it because he's found at the scene of the crime cradling the dog. Christopher is then determined to act as a detective like Sherlock Holmes and discover who killed poor Wellington the dog.
This book is told in the first person, which usually makes me cringe and stop reading; however, it was so beautifully written that I feel as though I got a chance to see the thinking process of an autistic person first hand. It was very fascinating to see how his thought process worked; how he saw and interacted the world and the people around him.
In the middle searching for the killer, Christopher uncovers an entirely different mystery regarding his family. His dad has been lying to him and throws his world into a tailspin.
This book is funny and engaging and gives a small bit of insight into the life of a person with autism, and being the parent of a child with autism.
Stephen Gordon grows up in the Malvern Hills of rural Worcestershire, the child of a rich local landowner and an Irish mother, from early on learns to hunt, fence, and engage in a plethora of other outdoor occupations, experiences first amorous stirrings for a plump and pretty housemaid, upon reaching (young) adulthood and after an ill-advised, socially disastrous calf love affair with a married woman leaves home and moves first to London and then to Paris, serves as an ambulance driver on the French front in WWI and becomes a celebrated novelist, but plunges into despair (not for the first time) upon losing out to an erstwhile friend -- a Canadian -- in affairs of the heart.
What's so special about this tale, you're wondering? Well, for one thing, Stephen is not a man but a woman, having been given a male first name by a father who had decided upon his heir's name long before the long-awaited child's eventual birth and not deterred by puny details such as that child's actual sex. More importantly, however, Stephen is a lesbian; or, as she herself calls it (taking a term from early 20th century sexologist Havelock Ellis), an "invert".
It's never entirely clear whether and to what extent the author, a lesbian herself, actually sought to portray her heroine's first name and upbringing, with its emphasis on (or at the very least, permissive attitude towards) Stephen's pronounced preference for masculine occupations and attitudes -- one prominently explored example being the fact that of course she does not ride side saddle but astride, which is what allows her to become such a superb hunter even before she has reached her teens to begin with; another equally prominent example being Stephen's insistence on wearing male clothes -- as a direct or indirect cause of her sexual leanings, or merely as a collateral effect: Hall does express unambiguously that Stephen is the way she is because God made her thus (i.e., a person's sexuality is a matter of nature, not nurture), which, though now the widely-accepted view, decidedly put her at odds with the beliefs and attitudes of her own time (of which more anon). Yet, the suggestion remains.
However, perhaps Hall was merely reflecting her own experience in that regard (or expressing a wish for the sort of tolerant and empowering childhood she would have wanted to have, but didn't actually enjoy herself) -- for unquestionably, she was speaking from her own experience: She, too, preferred male over female dress, dropped her female first name (Margaret) and adopted instead the male nickname (John) that one of her lovers had given to her, and like her heroine, she came to move in the Paris expat scene, including the salon of Natalie Barney (who inspired this novel's character of Valérie Seymour), and she, too, had visited the Canary Islands with her first llover, as does the novel's Stephen with her great love Mary. (Noël Coward, incidentally, is given quite an extensive cameo in the novel as well.)
Radclyffe Hall stated that her intentions in writing this novel were:
* "To encourage inverts to face up to a hostile world in their true colours and this with dignity and courage",
* "To spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work, faithful and loyal attachments and sober and useful living", and
* "To bring normal men and women of good will to a fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted."
A staunch Catholic and conservative in her politics, Hall was in no way prepared for her novel's reception in England, even though in hindsight at the very least, it can hardly be called surprising that, only a few decades after Oscar Wilde's infamous obscenity trial, a book explicitly describing its heroine to have "kissed [another woman] on the mouth, like a lover" and (though never sexually explicit) detailing at great length a woman's emotional trials, tribulations, and pinings for the various female objects of her desire, would have swiftly engendered the same response. (In Paris and Brittany, on the other hand, the publisher Jonathan Cape, who had shifted printing to France, and Sylvia Beach -- owner of Shakespeare & Co. -- could hardly keep up with demands for copies of the novel produced on French soil.) While Virginia Woolf's Orlando (published the same year), her own "love letter" to Vita Sackville-West, flitted through centuries and even underwent a mid-novel sex change with nary a critic's batted eyelash, and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (published a few years later) was saved from censorship by T.S. Eliot's editorial hands, Radclyffe Hall and Stephen Gordon walked straight into early 20th century England's bigoted attitude; obscenity trial, public vilification and virtually every other form of state-sponsored discrimination included. And this, mind you, over a book that is leagues from the brilliant writing of an Oscar Wilde, a Virginia Woolf, or a T.S. Eliot: Diana Souhami, in her introduction of the novel's Virago Press edition, rightly describes it as "unsensational" in both language and content and goes on to state:
"Radclyffe Hall was no stylist. Her prose is lofty and lacking in irony. She distrusted innovation in literature or art, and shunned what she saw as the modern heresies of Edith Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle or Gertrude Stein. In her writing she invokes the Lord with discomfiting frequency and uses words like 'betoken' and 'hath.' [...]
The Well of Loneliness has aspects of a pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance."
Decidedly more blunt, Virginia Woolf even found the novel unreadably dull: "[O]ne simply can't keep one's eye on the page," she wrote to a friend, suggesting that the book's very dullness as such was apt to successfully mask any indecency actually lurking in its pages. And while I wouldn't go quite so far as Woolf, I do agree with both her and Souhami on the nature of the writing -- oscillating between plain vanilla blandness on the one hand and excessively overwrought emotions on the other hand -- and on the elements identified by Souhami (equal parts pathological case history, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boon romance). If this book hadn't set out to do what, in 1920s and 1930s England was a complete and utter "no-no" -- to not only topicalize homosexuality but to boldly put it forth as equally worthy and deserving of acceptance and respect as heterosexual love --, this book would be long forgotten. As in so many similar cases, it is not this novel's literary merit that has bestowed on it its lasting impact, but its topic and, at least as much (or even more so), society's reaction to that topic. For those reasons alone, it is still a worthwhile read all these centuries later.
I read this for the "H" square of the Women Writers Bingo / Challenge.
A boy, robbed off his mother's love at the age of ten. Refusing to believe she is dead, clinging to the idea that she was buried alive while she was sleeping, digging a hole into the ground near her grave in order to speak to her. A loner who, then and there, decides to become "a true son of the forest," as his mother in a dream apparition has told him to be. (Or was that an early delusion?) An adolescent, locked up in juvenile homes, boarding schools, prisons and other institutions, abused by a priest, neglected, ignored, and locking himself off against the outside world in response. Putting to practice the one lesson he has learned from Lazlo, the boys' schizophrenic leader in the first such institution; Lazlo who heard voices and who has taught him that the one thing that counts is to hate "them" (the grown-ups, those that stand for authority and society as a whole) with a worse hate than they have for him. A young man, unable to show any feeling other than that long-practiced hatred; acting out his suppressed emotions in violence whenever he is not locked up, unable to escape the voices now talking in his head more and more often, just as they were once talking in Lazlo's.
And a young woman with long red hair. Maddie's mother, raising her young son alone, breaking off all relationships with men as soon as they get to close for comfort. An outsider, only recently moved to the village. A teacher. An artist. Mistress of ceremonies at a Celtic festival, performing pagan rituals. Druidess. Mystery woman whom nobody knows with complete intimacy, maybe not even her sister Cassandra and her best friend Madge. Raped and murdered by a young man trapped between insanity and emotional deprivation, for whom she is the realization of everything he associates with the idea of the female – simultaneously fairy queen, virgin, angel, object of his sexual fantasies, whore, confidante and most importantly, mother.
This is the couple which, in the deadly dance at the heart of Edna O'Brien's In the Forest, is locked together by fate; a fate prompted by the murderer's delusions and rage as much as by society's inability to deal with him. And this first murder is only the starting point of a killing spree which will demand several more victims ...