To be, or not to be… a lady.

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick


‘And I of ladies most deject and wretched …’

I’m not actually feeling depressed myself: with these words, Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, bewails the fact that Hamlet, who has recently been wooing her, is now treating her with utter contempt and has implied that she, because she is a woman, can be no lady, unless a licentious ‘painted’ one. The word ‘lady’ is one I’ve been pondering since, a week ago, we spent two very enjoyable days walking with our friends Priscilla and Rupert and, over breakfast, I told an anecdote from my remote bookselling past, which, briefly, goes like this:

The founder of the small library supply company for which I used to work, who was a First World War veteran and a very old man (I’ll call him ‘Mr Smith’) when I first met him, always stayed at the George Hotel in Stamford on his visits to and from London.  His wife, a formidable lady by all accounts, the eldest of five clannish and strong-willed sisters, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time at home, engaged in various projects that could be completed from her bed; for example, she taught herself fluent German.  However, when her illness – whatever it was, it always sounded quite vague to me – was in remission, she would occasionally accompany him on his business trips and eventually they checked in together at the George, which is a magnificent old coaching inn and quite grand in its way.  One of the services it has always offered is tea in bed, delivered by a waiter.  On the morning after their arrival, the waiter duly knocked at the door and entered with their tea tray.  The founder’s wife sat up in bed to take it from him.  The founder himself also sat up and the waiter addressed him with the following greeting:

‘Good morning, Mr Smith. Not the usual lady, I see!’

Aside from the fact that I find this very funny – it became one of the company legends – it’s interesting because of its use of the word ‘lady’, always a slipperier noun than its plainer alternative, ‘woman’. My husband was once berated by some female colleagues for saying ‘Good morning, ladies,’ even though, as he pointed out, ‘Good morning, women,’ sounds both comic and slightly disrespectful (and in any case, he added, he always said, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ to a group of men). But ‘lady’ is not a straightforward term.  If not used with care, it can be very patronising: why do we refer to ‘dinner ladies’ and ‘cleaning ladies’, but use the terms ‘female’ or ‘woman’ as epithets for women with a recognised profession (policewoman, female barrister, woman MP)?  Would anyone today refer to a ‘lady teacher’ or a ‘lady librarian’?  (There were actually ‘lady librarians’ running the public library service before the Second World War; they were generally women from the upper middle classes, whose families were so well-heeled that the local authorities didn’t need to pay them a salary and, as soon as salaries were introduced, many of these jobs were then taken by men! )  And what of the careers to which women have  been admitted only in more recent times?  Would anyone seriously allude to a lady soldier, a lady bus driver or a lady CEO?  Don’t we all abhor the slimy man who refers to his spouse as ‘the lady wife’?

And yet … amid the hubbub of modern life, we may – sometimes – still wish to be referred to as ‘ladies’.  For example, when a mother with a lively child in tow says to it, ‘Give up your seat to this lady,’ or ‘Be careful, don’t bump into that lady,’  it would be only  the most truculent and militant of us who would correct her and say, ‘Please refer to me as a woman.’  Shops – including online ones – still refer to ‘ladies’ fashions’ and, although some facilities in hotels, restaurants and public places are now marked ‘Men’ and ‘Women’, most still use the more traditional ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’.  Speechmakers still begin their address with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ – or sometimes even the grander ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ with its delightful implication that all ‘ladies’ are in some way aristocratic.  And most of us are fascinated by the great ladies of the past: Bess of Hardwick, who began life as a ‘woman’ and worked her way up; Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s two most famous mistresses (though the other, Nell Gwynne, was definitely a ‘woman’); and two scintillating Duchesses of Devonshire, each quite different from the other –  Georgiana, the eighteenth century holder of that title, and the recently-deceased Deborah, chatelaine of Chatsworth House, who was born a lady and became a greater one.

Listing some of these ladies, however, brings out another connotation of the word: it can be and often is very closely associated with the oldest profession. Thus the deliciously evocative  ‘ladies of the night’, ‘his lady-friend’ (meaning ‘not his wife’) and a ‘lady no better than she should be’, a term much favoured by my grandmother, usually delivered with a flash of the eye and a pulling-down of her skirt over her knees, as if to imply that her virtue, at least, was safe.

I return to Ophelia. One of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic heroines, she is portrayed both as the ultimate virgin and, after her madness sets in, as a foul-mouthed woman conversant with sexual practices unbefitting a ‘maid’.  ‘Lady’ is a word she uses frequently.  She herself embodies its ambiguity, and by extension the double entendre of the word itself. It is an equivocation which today’s women, who in this country have almost but not quite achieved equality and in many others are still fighting a tough uphill battle to get anywhere near it, often resent.  Are we ladies or women?  Does the word ‘lady’ still have a place in our society?  What of its counterpart, ‘gentleman’? But that, perhaps, raises a wholly different topic!

I’ll leave the penultimate word to Ophelia:

‘Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.

And the last to myself:

Or, perhaps, ‘Good-bye, Ladies? Hello, Women?’  Words, words, words!

Turning the eye upon our selfies…

Turning the eye upon our selfies

I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife.  The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home.  It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’  The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself.  Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene.  It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work.  As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’.  I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.

My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags:  ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’  That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in.  However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam.  Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push.  Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time.  So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.

Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live.  We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture.  Why?  Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality.  Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process.  Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity.  Oh dear.  The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.

I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way.  We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that!   I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny.  I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day.  I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!

Warning, this post is not for the prudish…

Don't read this - it is a very hard and naughty bit...

Don’t read this – it is a very hard and naughty bit…

A physics professor from the University of Cambridge has objected to a sexually-explicit passage from Ovid’s Amores that was set as part of this year’s Cambridge OCR Board AS-level paper (the candidates sitting the exam will therefore mostly have been 16 or 17). Apparently, he thinks that the piece was unsuitable for students of this age, because the examination rubric states that ‘candidates should be able to … produce personal responses to Latin literature, showing an understanding of the Latin text’.

As an aside, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that at least some of the examinees were not as innocent as the professor supposes. However, I do not need to speculate on how knowledgeable they may have been on the subject of the piece – an adulterous liaison between the poet and a married woman – because that is not the issue. If it were, then examinations would also have to exclude literary works that refer to all crimes, including murder, and all works set either in the past or in foreign countries unknown to the candidates. That would rule out the whole of Shakespeare, the whole of Jane Austen and most modern masterpieces. Surely the point of great literature is that it has the power to evoke an imaginative response in the reader that transcends his or her actual experiences. It achieves a fusion between art and life that yet maintains intact the distinction between the two. As Orhan Pamuk puts it so eloquently in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, “We dream assuming dreams to be real; such is the definition of dreams. And so we read novels assuming them to be real – but somewhere in our mind we also know very well that our assumption is false.”

What is depressing about the good professor’s comments, however, is not their patent absurdity (he is a professor of Physics, after all, not of Literature), but the fact that they signal a deadening retrogressive trend that is in danger of spreading beyond the confines of the classroom. I was a schoolgirl during the tail end of a period when some school texts still in circulation were described as ‘abridged’ or even ‘expurgated’: for example, my rather old-fashioned grammar school still had many sets of the Warwick Shakespeares. They had been relieved of all scenes of a sexual nature and any words that could be construed as ‘blasphemous’. However, by then, these texts were still in use for reasons of economy, rather than to preserve the pupils’ innocence. When we came to the examinations, we were expected to have read the full-fat versions. Teachers advised us to refer to these in the Collected Works, or sometimes reproduced the excised passages on separate cyclostyled sheets of paper.

To my knowledge, the Latin texts that we studied had never been subjected to the same cleansing process: my Latin ‘A’ Level syllabus included the original works by Juvenal and Catullus – much racier than Ovid – as well as Ovid himself. I cannot remember having had any difficulty in understanding them or of their having caused offence or difficulty in the classroom. What I do recall is how fresh and original they still seemed, two millennia after they were first published, and the brilliance of the teacher who helped us to appreciate them.

I’m delighted that Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, has robustly defended the choice of excerpt in the Latin exam paper, because I’d hate us to slide backwards into a kind of dark age of political correctness in literature. Today we are scornful of Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, in which Cordelia marries Edgar and all the ‘good’ characters live happily ever after. We are positively amused by the efforts of Thomas Bowdler, who not only supervised the production of a ‘family edition’ of Shakespeare, but also considered that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was too risqué for polite society, and ‘improved’ it accordingly. More recently, my generation was exasperated by Mary Whitehouse’s well-meaning but narrow-minded attempts to clean up television.

We flatter ourselves that we live in a more sophisticated age than Tate or Bowdler. Many of their contemporaries, in fact, looked askance at what they were trying to achieve, just as my generation ridiculed Mary Whitehouse. Yet fashions in morality and what is ‘acceptable’ often don’t progress in linear fashion, making the next more discerning than its predecessor. In the nineteenth century, English literature was propelled at first slowly, then ever more rapidly, from the exceptionally daring creativity of the Regency era to a decades-long period that celebrated anodyne writings in which sexuality had to be conveyed in the strange telegraphese of young girls’ blushes and young gentlemen riding hard to hounds to quell their natural yearnings. Alternatively, these characters just faded away, blissful in the knowledge that their virtue had not been compromised. Woe betide the ‘fallen woman’, whose plight was not recognised until the end of the century, when Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Ubervilles.

When I was at school, it was a commonly-held belief that Physics was a finite subject: that mankind had ‘cracked’ it and had discovered all that there was to it. I know very little indeed about science, but I have read that today Physics is an incredibly exciting as well as very complex subject, one which attracts the finest minds as scientists push back the boundaries of knowledge all the time. I both respect and am in awe of them. I would suggest that they have at least one thing in common with those who choose to make literature their life’s work: they build on the creativity of the generations that preceded them. As far as I know, there is no expurgated version of Newton or Einstein: the only limitations placed on their students concern the latters’ capacity for understanding. The same restriction, and this restriction only, should apply to those who study Shakespeare, Catullus, Juvenal – and Ovid.

Shakespeare, a man more sinning?


Recent research, I was amused to read, shows that Shakespeare was fined for hoarding malt and corn and selling it to his neighbours at times of poor harvest.  At the time, he was already an established author with (presumably) a reasonable income, so indigence could not have been an excuse.  We already knew that in his youth he poached deer and that as an adult he was fined for not attending church.  The two latter are perhaps more in keeping with the anarchic streak that we expect from a writer, but discoveries of the Bard’s foibles and failings are always greeted with a sense of incredulity, if not outrage.  This is curious, for surely it is illogical to expect the nation’s most profound student of character to have been himself a colourless tabula rasa.  Besides, living in Elizabethan England was an uncertain business at all social levels and we know that Shakespeare was not without the type of social ambition that could be fuelled only by money.  His acquisition of New Place, a substantial house, would have sent a message to prosperous Stratford burghers that he could claim his place as their equal.

The world seems to require a moral standard from Shakespeare, as if his intellect and wordpower somehow elevate him to a heavenly plane, where there is a writer paradise entirely free from sin, that we may look up to and admire; we don’t seem to require this of other writers in the same way.  Byron’s poetry, for example, is not judged by his immorality.  So why the sense of shock with Shakespeare?  Perhaps it is because we know so little of Shakespeare’s life, so that every new snippet of information about him carries greater weight and significance than if his career were better documented.  I do, however, think that it is more likely that it is because he is viewed as a kind of literary god, whose grasp of humanity is superhuman, and as the yardstick by which we judge all our literary heritage; it is unthinkable to ascribe grubby behaviour to such a mighty individual!

However, as a writer of murder stories, I am glad that Shakespeare was demonstrably a sinner and very human.  His understanding of and rapport with the realities of human behaviour and character  paved the way for the rest of us by creating some of the most eloquent murderers of all time.  I’m not sure that a goody two shoes would have been able to manage that.

On a beautiful day, an exquisite work…


I apologise to regular readers – and I should like to say here that I am extremely grateful to you for being regular readers – of this blog, for presenting you with a book review two days running.  Perhaps as an antidote to my dose of Sheridan Le Fanu (whose works, whatever their good qualities may be, certainly belong to Henry James’ category of ‘loose baggy monsters’), I began last night to read The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, and did not put it down until I had finished it.

It is a breathtakingly beautiful novel, although it deals with that ugliest of subjects, civil war.  It is also very grown-up, with profound layers of meaning that are allowed to speak for themselves; the author does not intrude upon the reader by presenting any kind of moralistic commentary.

At the literal level, the story consists of a portrait of the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo as seen through the eyes of three people over the period of a few days.  Fundamentally, the novel is an examination of what it means to be human and what ‘being good’ really consists of.  Principles of right and wrong are explored both through the most extreme situations (for example, Arrow, the female sniper working on behalf of the townspeople, finds it increasingly difficult to justify her acts of killing the ‘men of the hills’, even though they are picking off her fellow citizens daily) and more mundane dilemmas, such as that of Kenan, who, when he risks his life to collect water for his family, resents also having to fill up two heavy and awkward water containers for his elderly neighbour, not because he likes her (he doesn’t) or because she has been kind to him (she hasn’t), but because she holds him to a casual promise of help made in happier times.

The cellist is the common thread that unites these characters, as they listen to him; they do not know each other and do not meet. The reader discovers little about him.  He is a roughly-dressed, unkempt man with no name who has taken a vow to play his cello every day for twenty-two days in a street where twenty-two people died as the result of a mortar attack.  Daily, therefore, he puts himself at risk of murder by one of the snipers in the hills.  He is an enigmatic, Christ-like figure.  Did he lose someone in the mortar attack or is he making a point about preserving art and maintaining civilised activity in a world grown savagely feral and full of fear?  Does he celebrate or mourn humanity?

Almost every sentence that Steven Galloway writes delights with its precision and eloquence.  My guess is that he rewrote some of them many times in order to convey the exact descriptions, meaning, undertones and overtones that he intended.  However, nowhere is the novel ‘overwritten’.

I believe that this is a very important novel indeed; it belongs to the literary tradition of writing about the juxtaposition of warfare and what it means to be human that stretches back through Tolstoy and Shakespeare to the Icelandic sagas, Virgil and Homer.  It is elegiac, timeless and yet very disturbingly modern.

Need a good villain? I have one in mind…

Don John

A Shakespearean villain I’ve never had much time for is Don John in Much Ado About Nothing.  He’s a stock character drafted in to do mischief and to foul up the relationship between the fairly uninspiring Hero and her bland lover Claudio.  His villainy is never convincing, though he himself and other characters do their best to establish him in it.  The fact is, of course, that the real sparkle of this rollicking romp of a play is the battle between the confirmed bachelor Benedick and the verbally-adversarial Beatrice, whose developing relationship steals the hearts of the audience.  Aided by his henchmen, Don John does his worst, runs away and ends up caught; his punishment is postponed beyond the end of the play.  I can’t help but feel that Shakespeare missed a trick with him, considering the potential he has in this comedy as a serious knot to be untied.  Perhaps the playwright lacked an actor in the company to turn Don John into something much more compelling.  I have such a person in mind!

Yesterday, I travelled to London to meet my friend James.  He is an entrepreneur, bursting with business ideas, most of them relating to the publishing industry.  He’s had the odd failure, but mostly he succeeds.  He’s a millionaire several times over, but he keeps on working.  I think that this is not only because of his prodigious energy and industriousness (both of which I admire), but because he is addicted to the thrills and spills that each new (ad)venture brings.  He is a piratical sort of man.  I don’t think that he would break the law, but he certainly isn’t a ‘suit’.  He may be obliged to wear one, but I’m sure he’d be happier with long hair and a beard, parading in lace and velvet, hung about with ornaments in the manner of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

What does he have to do with crime writing?  Apart from having sold a great many e-books, some of them fiction, some undoubtedly belonging to the crime genre, nothing, as far as I know.  Not yet, anyway.  But I feel that it is my duty as a crime fiction writer not to pass up the opportunity offered by such promising raw material.  He’s such an extraordinary character that he’d make an excellent hero in an action novel; on the other hand, he’d be an equally good villain.

I know that I said in an earlier post that I wouldn’t betray my friends by making them into recognisable characters, but the fact is that James would love it.  (I mentioned the idea to him in passing and he latched on to it at once.)  He would dine out for months on telling the tale and, in the process, sell many copies of the book to his extensive circle of friends and many more to readers worldwide on his e-books platform (though, knowing James, he’d extract a keen discount for this service).

And the headline of ‘James, by James’ would be bound to intrigue!

Richard III: ‘a serviceable villain’?

Richard III books

My interest in Richard III was kindled when I was a young bookseller, because my boss was a member of the Richard III Society.  I’ve subsequently read several books about the Wars of the Roses and also visited Richard’s castle at Middleham.  That he had strong links with Yorkshire has increased his fascination for me.

Few English kings have inspired such intense posthumous opinion as Richard.  Henry VIII, Charles II and George III have all had their fierce supporters and detractors, but none has had vitriol heaped upon him as Richard has.  He could hardly have been as wicked as he was reputed to be; his shimmeringly evil reputation, much enhanced by the distorted character that Shakespeare created to please his Tudor mistress, even had the unintentional effect of giving him the same kind of glamour as Milton’s Satan.  Shakespeare was also responsible for exaggerating his physical deformities; unlike Dorian Gray three hundred years later, the fictional Richard’s evil soul was supposed to have been made manifest in an ugly face and twisted body.

The Richard III Society was founded to put the record straight, but, like almost all societies that support the memory of controversial historical and literary characters, it quickly became so partisan that some of its published ‘research’ stretched the facts.  Nevertheless, it is to one of its present-day members that we are indebted for the discovery of Richard’s remains under a car park in Leicester.  Amazingly, modern science, in particular miraculous DNA matching techniques, proves conclusively that the bones did belong to this last Plantagenet king.  I am sure that a great book will come out of the story of their discovery and testing (which, as last night’s Channel 4 programme showed, has been meticulous).

In the popular imagination, Richard’s worst act has always been his reputed murder of his two nephews, the so-called ‘princes in the tower’.  They were the heirs of Edward IV.  The elder of them, Edward V, was never crowned king, but the title was reserved for him, even so; the next King Edward was crowned Edward VI.  There is no proof that Richard killed the two princes.  It is known that they lived in the Tower of London for many months and gradually disappeared from view; first they were seen playing frequently, then infrequently, then not at all.  Although it is fairly certain that bones discovered in the tower in the late 1990s belonged to the princes, there is no conclusive proof of who murdered them.  Was it indeed Richard?  Or did the order come from Henry VII (the preferred candidate of the Richard III Society) after his accession?  Of course, I don’t know, though I’d rather like to think it was Henry myself, partly because Richard has always been such an underdog, partly because Henry was a cruel cold fish of a man.  He was certainly capable of killing them.

Whoever it was, the outpouring of emotion that this murderous act has generated is illogical.  Perhaps it is because they were children; perhaps because one of them was a king and kings were sacred.  Yet there can have been no king between William I and Richard III who did not commit murder, except, perhaps, Henry VI, who was himself murdered for the national good; and, although the Tudors themselves considered the murder of kings to be taboo, Shakespeare’s own queen, Elizabeth I, herself killed an anointed queen, Mary Queen of Scots.  I conclude that Richard’s infamy stuck because of the genius of Shakespeare himself.  The beauty and the irony of these famous lines have touched every generation since they were written in 1592:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

The bones retrieved from the car park were of a slight and delicately-formed man; he did, indeed, suffer from scoliosis, but it probably only made one shoulder appear slightly higher than the other; otherwise, he may have cut an attractive, even a refined, figure.  I should never want to lose Shakespeare’s magnificent villain, but perhaps now that the real Richard has been found, he can co-exist with his alter ego.  There is surely room in our heritage for both of them.

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