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Womanism

Dinah Birch, 21 December 1989

The Temple of my Familiar 
by Alice Walker.
Women’s Press, 405 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7043 5041 6
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The Fog Line 
by Carol Birch.
Bloomsbury, 248 pp., £13.95, September 1989, 0 7475 0453 9
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Home Life Four 
by Alice Thomas Ellis.
Duckworth, 169 pp., £9.95, November 1989, 0 7156 2297 8
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TheFly in the Ointment 
by Alice Thomas Ellis.
Duckworth, 132 pp., £10.95, October 1989, 9780715622964
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Words of Love 
by Philip Norman.
Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp., £11.95, October 1989, 0 241 12586 3
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... are uttered. It is not reassuring to discover that unbounded optimism can look so banal. Carol Birch’s tough and gloomy new novel seems to emerge from a different world. The beleaguered life of Gloria, disillusioned heroine of The Fog Line, doesn’t leave room for Alice Walker’s sanguine visions. Yet she, too, is sustained by an image of primeval ...

The Little Woman Inside

Dinah Birch, 9 March 1995

An Experiment in Love 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 250 pp., £15, March 1995, 0 670 85922 2
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... Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised ...

Little was expected of Annie

Dinah Birch: The Story of an English Family, 19 October 2006

Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind: The Cloughs and Their Circle 1820-1960 
by Gillian Sutherland.
Cambridge, 262 pp., £40, March 2006, 0 521 86155 1
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... Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind’: it would be hard to devise a more off-putting title for Gillian Sutherland’s sympathetic account of the Clough family. It’s slightly misleading too, because her book is not much concerned with religious faith. The history it presents is shaped by faltering Christian conviction among the liberal elites of the 19th century, and the pursuit of justice and progress that survived Christianity’s decline ...

No wonder it ached

Dinah Birch: George Eliot, 13 May 1999

The Journals of George Eliot 
edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston.
Cambridge, 447 pp., £55, February 1999, 0 521 57412 9
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George Eliot: The Last Victorian 
by Kathryn Hughes.
Fourth Estate, 384 pp., £20, November 1998, 1 85702 420 6
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... her own family could be seen in characters such as the Dodson sisters in The Mill on the Floss, or Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, did not bring the longed for reconciliation any closer. She seems sometimes to have been surprised and disconcerted by the pain dial she could inflict. John Gwyther, the curate Eliot had known in nearby Chilvers Coton throughout the ...

The Medium in the Attic

Dinah Birch, 1 June 1989

The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England 
by Alex Owen.
Virago, 307 pp., £11.95, May 1989, 0 86068 567 5
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... Given the contemporary standing of spiritualism, you might suppose that only the gullible or feeble-minded among Victorian seekers after truth would have had any truck with its activities. But you’d be wrong. Some of the most sober luminaries of the age (Gladstone, Ruskin, even Queen Victoria) were prepared to accept, or at least to explore, the possibility of traffic with the dead ...

Other People

Dinah Birch, 6 July 1989

The Middleman, and Other Stories 
by Bharati Mukherjee.
Virago, 197 pp., £11.95, June 1989, 1 85381 058 4
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The Burning Boys 
by John Fuller.
Chatto, 128 pp., £10.95, June 1989, 9780701134648
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Termination Rock 
by Gillian Freeman.
Pandora, 182 pp., £12.95, June 1989, 0 04 440352 6
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Blackground 
by Joan Aiken.
Gollancz, 254 pp., £11.95, June 1989, 0 575 04502 7
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... What do the lives and thoughts of other people feel like? We’ll never really know, but fiction offers as good an approximation of knowing as we’re likely to come across. That absorbing illusion of a world elsewhere, with its promised distraction from the irksomeness of our own reality, has always been the most seductive reason for picking up novels and short stories ...

Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

Lewis Percy 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 261 pp., £11.95, August 1989, 0 224 02668 2
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Sexing the cherry 
by Jeanette Winterson.
Bloomsbury, 167 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7475 0464 4
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Fludd 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 186 pp., £11.95, September 1989, 0 670 82118 7
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... It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties of rationality, gives its narrative devices potent appeal to those placed by conviction, race or gender on the margins of the cultural establishment. Taking unfamiliar and ruthless forms, traditional tales have acquired new status in contemporary fiction ...

Dark Spaces

Dinah Birch, 28 September 1989

People of the Black Mountains: The Beginning 
by Raymond Williams.
Chatto, 361 pp., £13.95, September 1989, 0 7011 2845 3
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The Politics of Modernism 
by Raymond Williams.
Verso, 208 pp., £24, August 1989, 0 86091 241 8
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A Natural Curiosity 
by Margaret Drabble.
Viking, 309 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 670 82837 8
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... The image of a lost golden past is as old as literature. Certainly as old as English literature at any rate, for the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts look backwards, haunted by a sense of vanished affection and security. But English is neither the only tradition nor the first language to have grown up within these islands. One of Raymond William’s polemical purposes in People of the Black Mountains, his final fiction, is to affirm that Wales has its own distinct identity, founded in unremembered time which reaches beyond written records ...

Baby Brothers

Dinah Birch, 18 April 1996

Love, Again 
by Doris Lessing.
HarperCollins, 345 pp., £15.99, April 1996, 0 00 223936 1
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Playing the Game 
by Doris Lessing, illustrated by Charlie Adlard.
HarperCollins, 64 pp., £6.99, December 1995, 0 586 21689 8
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... How does someone of Doris Lessing’s uncompromising intelligence turn into a little old lady? Not easily, especially if body conspires with mind in refusing to retire gracefully. ‘Most men and more women – young women afraid for themselves – punish older women with derision, punish them with cruelty, when they show inappropriate signs of sexuality ...

Warming My Hands and Telling Lies

Dinah Birch, 3 August 1995

So I Am Glad 
by A.L. Kennedy.
Cape, 280 pp., £9.99, May 1995, 0 224 03974 1
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Now That You’re Back 
by A.L. Kennedy.
Vintage, 248 pp., £5.99, May 1995, 0 09 945711 3
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... One of the most convincing inclusions in Granta’s list of the 20 best young British novelists, A.L. Kennedy has composed a distinctive voice out of youth and national identity. She was born in Dundee, and now lives in Glasgow; Scottishness informs her fiction. This is partly a matter of a characteristic introspection, the tradition of spiritual autobiography that generated the novel in the first place and has never, in the hard climate of Scotland, quite lost its original impetus: Little comes more naturally to me and my kind than guilt ...

George’s Hand

Dinah Birch, 7 March 1996

A Son at the Front 
by Edith Wharton.
Northern Illinois, 223 pp., $26, November 1995, 0 87580 203 6
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... Edith Wharton’s reputation is finally disentangling itself from the long, fastidious shadow of Henry James. Only film and television could make the case in the public mind that Wharton is more than an imitative appendage of James. Scorsese’s intense version of The Age of Innocence found admirers, and the capering flounces of last year’s televised Buccaneers, with bosoms hardly out-swollen by the subsequent inflation of Pride and Prejudice, found many more ...

Defence of the Housefly

Dinah Birch, 14 November 1996

Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy 
edited by Michael Millgate.
Oxford, 364 pp., £45, April 1996, 0 19 818609 6
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... Hardy’s wives were not inclined to be reticent about the trials of life at Max Gate. Florence was struck with uneasiness after one particularly edgy bout of discontent: ‘I hope you burn my letters. Some are, I fear, most horribly indiscreet.’ But her husband was by then the most famous literary man of his age, and Florence’s letters were not for burning ...

Getting to Tombstone

Dinah Birch, 17 October 1996

‘People for Lunch’ and ‘Spoilt’ 
by Georgina Hammick.
Vintage, 408 pp., £6.99, August 1996, 0 09 946381 4
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The Arizona Game 
by Georgina Hammick.
Chatto, 285 pp., £14.99, August 1996, 0 7011 6214 7
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... Volumes of short stories do not get into the bestseller lists, but Georgina Hammick’s first collection. People for Lunch (1987), did so at once. It can hardly have been the subject-matter: the stories are not especially violent or sexually inventive, nor do they offer revisionary analyses of late 20th-century culture. Anything quite exceptional, magic or grotesque is not their business ...

A Year upon the Sofa

Dinah Birch, 8 May 1997

Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists 
by Valerie Sanders.
Macmillan, 249 pp., £42.50, September 1996, 0 333 59563 7
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... Anti-feminist women puzzle and infuriate their feminist sisters. How can a capable and rational woman persuade herself to oppose a cause from which she has gained so much? Is it self-hatred, or misguided self-interest? Craven subservience to men, or mean-minded jealousy of the success of other women? Understandably, feminist scholars have often preferred to focus on the onward march of liberation, rather than the perversities of female resistance to women’s advance ...

In praise of work

Dinah Birch, 24 October 1991

Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle 
by Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson.
Chatto, 226 pp., £50, July 1991, 0 7011 3186 1
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... Ford Madox Brown’s greatest picture is called Work, and it depicts the laying of a sewer. It is not beautiful. But that is part of Brown’s point, for he was after qualities that counted for more than beauty. Its subject was carefully chosen. Brown knew that sewers mattered. The threat of cholera haunted Mid-Victorian England, and only efficient sanitation could remove it ...

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