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)
Via David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog
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The dark, forgotten world of British girls’ comics is about to be resurrected

The UK’s most surreal and innovative comic strips have long been gathering dust. As a publisher acquires the archives, they could be heading for a renaissance.

Comics now exert a massive influence on popular culture, yet those that do are almost exclusively drawn from two American publishers, and mostly exist within one genre: Superheroics.

Comics, though, are a medium, not a genre, and, in acquiring this prominence, American superhero comics have obscured almost everything else done in the medium both in the US and elsewhere.

British comics, from publishers like DC Thomson, IPC and Fleetway, rarely involved superheroes, and were traditionally anthologies, with multiple episodic serials running at all times. They were divided by their publishers into three categories, humour comics aimed at younger children (The Beano and The Dandy remain well-known, although only the former still exists), comics aimed at boys (largely war comics, such as Battle, which also incorporated sports stories and science fiction), and titles specifically targeted at older girls.


All scans courtesy of David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog​.

The girls’ titles, particularly, have largely disappeared from common memory, acknowledged only by a handful of enthusiasts. This is odd, as at their peak, they routinely massively outsold the boys’ titles they shared shelf space with.

Bunty (1958-2001) is one of the few girls’ titles to retain any cache, but it had many stablemates and competitors. Some were devoted to straightforward romantic series, and strips with “improving moral messages” (eg. the girl who gets her dream job after helping a blind man out rather than be on time to her interview; it turns out to have been a test).

They also ran features that reflected then contemporary assumptions as to what all girls would/must like (Bunty often had a “cut-out wardrobe” clothes section as its back page), but there was also more variety in tone and content than you might expect.

The Seventies saw the creation of Tammy (1971-84), Jinty (1974-81) and Misty (1978-80). Tammy’s stories were often bleak, and many were variations on the darkest aspects of Cinderella (“Alison All Alone” saw a contemporary girl locked up by step-parents for reasons that are never really articulated).

Jinty ran some relatively normal contemporary school stories, eschewing a jolly hockey sticks angle and pushing something closer to kitchen sink drama (eg. “Pam of Pond Hill”, a Grange Hill-like series set in a comprehensive). But, as time went on, it became darker and odder, running series like John Wagner’s “The Blind Ballerina” (which has been described by acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore as “cynical and possibly actually evil”).

The lack of credits in most comics in this era meant the audience would’ve been largely unaware that their favourite stories, with their almost exclusively female casts were, like “The Blind Ballerina”, largely written and drawn by men.

Misty creator Pat Mills’ recollection is that while the publishers of the time had many women on staff, most of them saw magazines for older girls and women as the more worthwhile publications than comics.


Women who left a significant mark on these male-dominated titles include Jinty editor Mavis Miller, writer Benita Brown (later an author of historical family sagas set in the northeast which could rival Catherine Cookson when it came to being borrowed from public libraries), and Shirley Bellwood whose consistently magnificent covers for Misty – reputedly largely portraits of her own younger self – were responsible for establishing its aesthetic.

Pat Mills intended that Misty would do to, and for, girls’ comics what his own 2000AD had done with boys’ comics. Whereas 2000AD was, and indeed is, the ultimate science fiction anthology book, Misty would be – as its logo of a bat silhouetted against the moon suggested – unapologetically a horror comic.

Typical Misty serials include “The Loving Cup” (a cursed goblet vessel causes women who drink from it to be possessed by Lucrezia Borgia), and “Winner Loses All” (in which a girl sells her soul to Satan to both save her alcoholic father and become a champion showjumper – the horse is cursed, of course).

Then there’s “Screaming Point”, about a hangman who dabbles in diabolic resurrection of his own clients, or Misty’s longest running single story, “Paint it Black”, in which cursed paints cause a girl quite a lot of trouble. More sci-fi than supernatural – but still within the horror remit – was “The Sentinels”, a serial about two tower blocks in contemporary Britain, which simultaneously exist in the real 1970s and in an alternative timeline where the country has been occupied by the Nazis since the 1940s.

If you’re now wondering why these amazing-sounding stories are no longer available to read, here’s the good news: you may very soon be able to. In August, Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD, bought a vast archive of old classic British comics from Egmont UK (the Fleetway and IPC Youth Group archives), which includes all the above material and more.

Rebellion, initially a computer games company known for the Sniper Elite series, bought 2000AD from Fleetway in, well, 2000AD. Fleetway was also the original publisher of Misty, and so on, although they’ve passed through other hands since.

This is oddly reminiscent of the “hatch, match and despatch” process, where a publisher would “merge” a cancelled comic into another they owned, incorporating the most popular characters and strips into the new composite title. This was the process whereby Tammy absorbed both Misty and Jinty as their sales declined. Mills has suggested that, had he had more direct control, Misty would, like 2000AD, still be running today.

Rebellion has already published a single slim volume of two Misty serials (containing the very odd, and very Seventies, reincarnation drama “Moonchild”, and the genuinely horrifying “The Four Faces of Eve”) and more are planned, but may depend on sales of this volume. If I could take this opportunity to call for a public vote in favour of reprinting Tammy’s startling “Karen, the Loneliest Girl in the World” here, I’d be grateful.


Reprints though, should really only be the beginning. With Rebellion having access to the Egmont archive and its intellectual property, could we see films or television series of some of Misty or Jinty’s best series?

With their female leads, strong emotional content, science fiction and horror aspects and political and social angles, it’s hard to deny that much of the content of Misty or a Jinty has a similar appeal to the kind YA books that become billion-dollar film franchises these days, in the exact same way American boys’ comics do.

It is startlingly easy to imagine opening an issue of Misty and finding a forgotten 1970s strip version of Twilight, or seeing The Hunger Games on the centre pages of Jinty. The main difference would be that they’d both be set in Slough.

With a bit of luck, some of the most peculiar, imaginative and challenging work in British comics could soon be raised from the dead in a new century and in a different form entirely, and then go on to dominate the world. Which, rather appropriately, sounds like something out of Misty.