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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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The Fly 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 ...

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 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 ...

Back Home

Dinah Birch, 12 May 1994

Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Inter-war Britain 
by Susan Kingsley Kent.
Princeton, 182 pp., £18.95, March 1994, 0 691 03140 1
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... Do women want equality? To the militant suffragettes campaigning before August 1914, the answer was self-evident. They wanted equality badly, and were ready to do battle for it. The aggressive action which backed their polemical crusade was designed to demonstrate possession of virtues previously considered to be essentially masculine: the capacity for public action and rational argument, physical courage, a ruthless drive for justice ...

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 ...

Long Hair, Young Hair, Braided and Defiant Hair

Dinah Birch: Lavinia Greenlaw, 10 May 2001

Mary George of Allnorthover 
by Lavinia Greenlaw.
Flamingo, 320 pp., £12.99, March 2001, 0 00 710595 9
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... It is hard to make a living from poetry. Lavinia Greenlaw has turned her hand to all manner of activities to support her work – publishing, teaching, arts administration, posts as writer-in-residence. These haven’t just been ways of paying the bills: her imagination has been cultivated by dealing with institutions. Greenlaw’s writing fuses feeling with lucid observation, driving lyricism into a more public space ...

Wintry Lessons

Dinah Birch: Anita Brookner, 27 June 2002

The Next Big Thing 
by Anita Brookner.
Viking, 247 pp., £16.99, June 2002, 0 670 91302 2
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... Anita Brookner’s first novel appeared in 1981. Since then she has published it again, slightly altered, almost every year. It is a remarkable feat. Nor is it irrelevant to what she has to say, for quiet persistence is part of what her fiction affirms. The same characters, the same situations, the same histories of seclusion and distress appear over and over again ...

How one has enjoyed things

Dinah Birch: Thackeray’s daughter, 2 December 2004

Anny: A Life of Anne Thackeray Ritchie 
by Henrietta Garnett.
Chatto, 322 pp., £18.99, January 2004, 0 7011 7129 4
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... When Thackeray died in 1863 his eldest daughter, Anny, who was 26, was left not just with a famous name and a sum of money but with an established place in London literary life. Affectionate and needy, Thackeray had nurtured Anny’s talents, and used her as his amanuensis. Before his death she had begun to publish work of her own, including a vigorous novel, The Story of Elizabeth ...

Invalided home

Dinah Birch, 21 October 1993

The Eye in the Door 
by Pat Barker.
Viking, 280 pp., £14.99, September 1993, 0 670 84414 4
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... Working-class memory generated Pat Barker’s writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life’, Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker’s work than that ...

Situations Vacant

Dinah Birch, 20 October 1994

The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below 
by Bruce Robbins.
Duke, 261 pp., £13.95, June 1993, 0 8223 1397 9
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... It must be many years since any girl spoke of going into service. The language of labour has changed. Farm workers are now described as full-time agricultural technicians; kitchen maids have turned into catering assistants. Thinking about what service was like, and how it was represented in language and literature, is a way of thinking about deep transformations in our culture ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch, 25 June 1992

Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance 
by Richard Jenkyns.
HarperCollins, 363 pp., £20, November 1991, 0 00 223843 8
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... There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose ...

Never Seen a Violet

Dinah Birch: Victorian men and girls, 6 September 2001

Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman 
by Catherine Robson.
Princeton, 250 pp., £19.95, June 2001, 0 691 00422 6
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... Freud takes it for granted that masculinity is the defining human condition, that all children begin life by imagining themselves as little men. When girls get round to noticing their lack of a penis and have to abandon fantasies of maleness, they feel envy and a lasting sense of alienation. Catherine Robson acknowledges and dismisses Freud and Lacan as forming ‘part of the continuing mythology of the creation of interiorised selves, a mythology to which this book aims to contribute one particular narrative ...

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