Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdict on Kate Summerscale, Mark Haddon and Dominic Sandbrook.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Critics this weekend were enamoured with Kate Summerscale’s true tale of one Victorian woman’s diary and the matrimonial inequalities that led to “the original” divorce. Mrs Isabella Robinson - an intellectual cloistered in her marriage to adultering husband Henry - becomes infatuated with a young doctor, recording her fantasies in a diary that is to be her eventual downfall. 

Summerscale’s previous book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, won her acclaim for her astute historical storytelling and engaging use of narrative. Afika Akbar of the Independent calls Mrs Robinson “every bit as captivating as her award-winning bestseller … Summerscale has a gift for historical excavation and reconstruction”.

Alexandra Harris of the Guardian echoes this praise, writing: “As a guide to mid-Victorian cultural life… Summerscale is simply superb, and she sets a fine example of what cultural history can do.” She also enjoyed the author’s instinctive handling of specific historical details – she writes: “In other hands, admittedly, this might become tiresome. But Summerscale has a knack of judging just how much we want to know. So she keeps adding strands to the web: divorce law, diary-writing, Victorian dream theory, gentlemen's advice on the advantages of erotic encounters in bumpy carriages.”

She lightly criticises Summerscale’s right to reconstructing a story from often patchy evidence. “Summerscale might have been more upfront about her own methods of narration in a book so concerned with reading, writing and the interpretation of documents,” writes Harris. “There are potentially significant gaps and doubts in a story she strives hard to render as a polished whole. It comes as a surprise, for example, late in the day that Summerscale has not read Isabella's diary, the fateful book having been lost or, more likely, destroyed…I couldn't help feeling that discussion of these matters would have left us better equipped to read Isabella and her times.”

Philip Hensher of the Spectator found a small fault with the book’s structure, writing: “Perhaps there is a problem with the shape of the story — with Constance Kent [of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher], the tale had the natural, conventional framework of mystery, solution, confession and redemption. The Robinson divorce circles around fiction and its fantasies”. Although overall he finds the book “absorbing”, congratulating Summerscale on tackling a more “important” historical case with this text than with her last: “The Robinson divorce is a much more important subject, and yet much less familiar. I’m not sure that there has ever been a full-dress telling of it before. Summerscale’s book is detailed, expansive, and well-informed…”


The Red House by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s third novel seems - for most - to have put him further up the literary ladder. Carol Birch writes for the Guardian: “Mark Haddon's second book, A Spot of Bother, made it clear he was becoming a master of the excruciating family set-piece. The Red House confirms it. Family… has become his speciality”. It’s a novel with a conventional conceit, a dysfunctional family unit trapped in a holiday cottage for a week of “bonding”, told through less conventional prose: the text is narrated by the rapidly shifting viewpoints of its eight characters, with dialogue italicised.

It’s a technique that works for some. Birch writes: “Haddon achieves a remarkable mélange of streams of consciousness, snatches of books, music, TV, private thoughts, lists, letters, all intertwined with sharply observed vignettes of everyday banality, soaring flights of description and odd bursts of heavy-handed portentousness”. She continues, “The viewpoint changes constantly, sometimes three or four times in a page. Mostly this works. Gradually, the characters come into focus, some more so than others… It's the young people who steal the book: Alex, lusting after both Melissa and her mother, despising his father and locking horns with alpha male Richard; Daisy seeking meaning in the mess around her, earnestly trying to be good; and selfish Melissa, whose sense of self "depended so much on other people being in the wrong".

Amanda Criag, writing for the Independent, agrees with the strength of Haddon’s youthful characters, writing “Alex is one of the best portraits of a teenage boy I've read for some time. His obsessive masturbation gives the novel its moments of hilarity…”, though she concedes that “he [Haddon] does not give us the profound insights into human nature that this kind of novel needs to make it great”.

Lionel Shriver, in her review for the Financial Times, finds the novel altogether less inspiring.  “Haddon is a gifted writer and lifts the tone above soap opera,” she notes.  “Nevertheless, there is a soporific mildness to this book – to the characters, the plot, and even the writing.” She is wary of his avant-garde literary devises, which “some will see as perfectly agreeable and others will perceive as affected.” (Though of her personal take on italicized dialogue, she bemoans: “I yearn for a single literary writer to rediscover the quotation mark, in all its unpretentious glory.”).

Her final critique sums it up: “In the main this novel fails to meet its flap copy’s promise to explore ‘the extraordinariness of the ordinary’ and instead merely explores the ordinariness of the ordinary. There’s only so much of a frisson of recognition to be garnered from reading about another oral hygiene obsessive who uses the interdental tip on his electric toothbrush.”


Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 by Dominic Sandbrook

Seasons in the Sun is Sandbrook’s latest of four large volumes recounting British history from 1956 onwards. The product of prodigious research, the author here tackles the period 1974 – 1979. It was an era the included the Winter of Discontent, the comodification of 1960s radicalism, soaring inflation and a glorification of the individual which set the stage for Thatcherism. Vernon Bogdanor, writing for the New Statesman, calls the book “a remarkable achievement”.

He goes on to praise Sandbrook’s thorough analysis of important social and cultural junctures, especially the political. He writes: “Seasons in the Sun shows convincingly how contingent Thatcher’s triumph actually was. Indeed, she would not even have competed for the Conservative Party leadership had her ally, Sir Keith Joseph, not insisted, in a speech in Birmingham in 1974, that many of Britain’s problems arose from how too many children were being born to young women in social classes four and five, and that “our human stock is threatened”. He questions the freshness of the text, pointing out the narrative “contains little that is new”, but overall calls it “highly enjoyable to read”.

David Edgar of the Guardian calls Seasons in the Sun “a more conservative book than State of Emergency [its predecessor]… partly because Sandbrook has dealt with environmentalism and feminism already”. A thorough examination of the issues examined by the author seems to leave him overall impressed, closing with this: “Sandbrook is right to argue that the 1970s was the moment when our century arrived.”

Keith Lowe reviews most effusively for the Telegraph, agreeing with one book club founder’s assertion that reading Sandbrook “is like stroking yourself”. He continues, “It is not only that this author knows how to tell a good story, it is the subject matter itself that is comforting. It is both long enough ago to be considered history, but recent enough for many of us to have experienced it. Sandbrook is giving us the chance not only to evaluate historical events, but also to reminisce. For those of us who grew up in the Seventies, it’s like sitting down with a friend to talk about old times.”

He applauds the books ability “to show us another side of the Seventies”, here meaning optimism and a thriving culture, rather than political woes. He goes on to note the books timeliness and contemporary relevance. He writes: “Considering the austerity we are experiencing today – and there are many echoes of the Seventies in our present situation – this charming, insightful and thoroughly compelling book is very timely indeed.”

Marraige in the Victorian era could be dissolved only if adultery was proven. (Photo: Getty Images)
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage