Books I’ve enjoyed #13

The current interest in issues of gender identity prompted me to read Radclyffe Hall’s autobiographical novel The Well of Loneliness, which was banned after its publication in 1928 but is now regarded as a classic. It is about a girl born in the late Victorian era to a wealthy family living on a country estate near Malvern. Despite being biologically female, ever since early childhood her appearance and behaviour has been obviously masculine. Although her parents feel greatly puzzled and concerned by her condition they never speak of it. When she grows up and falls passionately in love with another woman, her mother is forced to acknowledge her nature, and rejects her as “a sin against creation”. During later life in London and Paris she achieves success as a novelist and forms a loving relationship with a younger woman, but is eventually unable to withstand society’s condemnation of “inverts”. Nowadays her condition would be more widely accepted and she would be a candidate for sex reassignment surgery. This sad book contains sensitive descriptions of the main character’s tribulations, and of English country life as it used to be.

I listened to the audiobook version of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare. It is well written (by a ghost writer) and Harry narrates it fluently, He comes over as a fun loving but often troubled man whose most positive experiences have been his army service, his charity work with wounded veterans, and falling in love with Meghan. Although the text contains plenty of interesting material, it is pervaded by the author’s sense of victimhood, entitlement, hatred of the press and resentment towards the royal family. I feel these attitudes can only partly be justified by the trauma of losing his mother when he was eleven years old, terrible though that must have been. We await the next episodes of his life story.

Clare Chamber’s novel Small Pleasures is set in the suburbs of London during the 1950s. Jean is a middle-aged unmarried woman who works as a journalist on a local newspaper and lives with her demanding elderly mother. Her drab existence is enlivened after she begins research for a feature about a young girl who is allegedly the product of a virgin birth. The details of Jean’s domestic life, and the development of her character as she becomes emotionally involved with the girl and her parents, are engagingly described in a style reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym. It must have been difficult to devise a satisfactory ending to the story and the last few chapters are not up to the standard of the earlier ones. Despite this criticism I very much enjoyed the book.

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