Saturday, May 17, 2008

Honourable Estate

Readers of Virago Modern Classics have been hustling their green-backed paperbacks (and new chick-lit-lookialikes) out of their bookcases lately. You’ll see women in urban landscapes on the buses reading Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbor, and sweaty women swigging water and munching power bars beside a dusty trail, reading Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate (1936; Virago 2000).

The 30th anniversary of the founding of Virago is the occasion of gossipy reminiscences in blogs and the Guardian (including an article by founder Carmen Callil). Bloggers will ask what your favorite Virago is and are there any copies of The Brontes Went to Woolworth's for less than $34 (the answer is no). I've been reading some extraordinary Viragos myself. I LOVED the Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I learned about in Carmen Callil's article. And I mention Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate because I was denied it so long by its obscure status, and because Brittain’s novels have been sneered at by critics and more often overlooked.

Carolyn Heilbrun, a literary critic who wrote the introduction to Brittain’s Testament of experience, declared: “Brittain was not a great novelist....She discovered her form to be the documentary.” Because of such dismissive statements, I assumed that Brittain’s autobiographies were her best work and never looked for the novels. I am stunned by this low estimation of her fiction. Honourable Estate is a swift-moving 587-page novel of ideas, from which I could barely tear myself away for work or for sleep.

In Honourable Estate, Brittain analyzes the impact of World War I on two generations of men and women. Janet, a pre-war suffragist, loathes housework and motherhood and escapes from her fanatical vicar husband to political meetings. In the next generation, Ruth, the feminist daughter of an indulgent manufacturer, graduates from Oxford, despite her family’s belief that marriage should be her “estate." A nurse during World War I, disillusioned by many losses, she believes that the war continues after the armistice as refugees pour into camps in Russia and Poland. All characters are psychologically damaged, but make a difference in society. The novel is not plot-oriented, but Brittain's ideas and the emotional political involvement of her characters are exquisitely expressed and explained in her fluid style.


Ellen said...

Dear Kathy,

I can believe Elizabeth Jenkins' _The Tortoise and the Hare_ is a good novel. I read another by her I was stunned by: _Harriet_. It's a Jane Austen antidote. She also wrote a very good biography of Austen, Elizabeth I, and a sensibl book on the Arthrian legends


Mad Housewife said...

Dear Ellen,

I'll look for _Harriet_. Often I don't know what to read by these obscure writers.