SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Last year I set myself two goals for the year.

  1. To only read books by women, more on which here.
  2. To blog about each one.

The first was a great success, and the latter an abysmal failure.

One of the unexpected oddities of my year of gendered reading was a surprisingly large volume of histories of Ancient Rome, ending when I got Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome for Christmas.

Beard herself seems quite the character. She has her own documentary, which opens with her pedaling down the Appian Way.

Her history starts with Romulus, Remus and their fateful encounter with a lactating she-wolf, and ends with the emperor Caracalla giving citizenship to everyone within the empire. It’s thematic, rather than narrative, and focuses on legacy rather than historical detail. As she writes:

To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps us to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world and our place in it.

I’ve been listening to the marathon narrative of the History of Rome podcast, and against which SPQR provided a context: the ‘What’ to it’s ‘When’. As Beard concludes:

…I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and pose, their controversies and their arguments.

This is an apt summary of the other books on Roman history I read last year, which circled less around Rome’s history and more around its trace. I thought I’d explore this through another sporadic foray into blogging; starting with Charlotte Higgin’s Under Another Sky, Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, then wandering back to the start of last year, with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.

You can read Mary Beard’s blog here or buy her book here.

 

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

No, it’s a bit too long, but she would enjoy the TV show.

‘The Victorian City’ by Judith Flanders, ‘Georgian London’ by Lucy Inglis and ‘Culture Class’ by Martha Rosler

In my ongoing quest to understand the origins of planning law, I’ve been reading a lot of histories of London. That, after all, is where most of our town planning systems come from. Particularly I’ve just finished Lucy Inglis’ Georgian London: Into the Streets and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City: Every Day Life In Dickens’ London.

Both of them focus a lot on poo.

For example, Inglis starts with an analysis of the building code designed by Christopher Wren in 1667, shortly after he was appointed King’s Surveyor of Works.But then she grounds things in the more immediate and brutally personal:

On a Saturday in 1762, in a run-down alley near Tothill Fields, Mary Flarty left her toddler Jerry with five-year-old Anne Ellison. They alley had no traffic, and seemed safe for young children. Jerry tried to use the special low seat for youngsters in the communal privy, and fell into the cesspit. Although the community rallied immediately to retrieve the boy, Jerry was already dead.

London grew massively during the 18th century and, as it did so, the volume of effluent being produced began to seep into the water table. In 1831, it infected the water table with a cholera, killing 52,000 people. In London, the City declared ‘a Day of Fasting and Humiliation’ in the belief it was a curse from God.

Incidentally, Inglis has her own adorable Youtube channel here where she films things with her phone and talks about them:

Similarly, Judith Flanders devotes an entire chapter to waste water, giving a more graphic depiction of the source of the cholera outbreak:

By the late 1840s, there were so many cesspools under even the most expensive housing in the West End, that the walls between them frequently collapsed, and so fashionable London was perched on top of what one sanitary reformer called not cesspools but ‘cess-lakes’.

By 1858, there was so much shit in the Thames that the summer became known as The Great Stench. The smell was so bad it disrupted Parliament. The Times reported, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench.” Disraeli passed a bill to establish a Metropolitan Board of Works and install sewerage systems across the city.

We live in far less dangerous, far more resilient cities today. Much of that resilience emerged because the consequences of poor policy have been so dire. One of the other books I’ve been dipping in and out of is Martha Rosler’s Culture Class, in which she cites Richard Florida et al as proof that “empirical inadequacy and faulty predictive power are no barriers to success.” Looking at contemporary urban studies, it’s interesting to contemplate whether the increased resilience of our cities has made them less responsive; allowing poor policies to succeed by virtue of not having produced disasters big enough to disprove them.

Note: If you don’t think that’s an interesting point of contemplation, you can watch Rosler’s ironic Semiotics of the Kitchen here:

Would My Mother Enjoy These Books:

The Victorian City by Judith Flanders: She would read and enjoy parts of it, but it is quite long and the font is quite small.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis: She would read ten pages and then give it to me for Christmas

Culture Class by Martha Rosler: She would read a few pages and then ring me up to tell me about art and Feminism in the Seventies. The conversation would quickly turn to focus on teaching in the Eighties.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

There’s a review by Laura Millar, published in The Guardian on February 11th 2015, that describes this book as “strenuously quirky”. Millar didn’t like it, writing:

Eccentricities, as uncountable as the sands of the Sahara, drift and blow through this book, piling up in dunes that must be scaled by characters and readers alike.

She concludes with:

It’s true that if you dig deeply enough, you can find something bizarre about almost anyone. When, however, the focus for nearly 300 pages is on a relatively small cast, the multiplying weirdness becomes unamusing absurdity.

Four days earlier, the same paper published another review on the same book by Eva Wiseman, arguing that the word ‘quirky’ is deliberately used to dismiss women’s work as silly. Wiseman writes:

To be quirky is to be whimsical. To be frivolous, naive, awkward, self-conscious. To have disproportionately large eyes and a faraway gaze. It is to be twee. It defines a character by her eccentricities rather than inviting you to see them as a whole.

I’m guessing some of this is less about The First Bad Man, and more about July’s earlier work, like this:


And this:

Based on that, I’d had a few people tell me I’d hate this book; that it would be too emotional or too wacky for my taste.

This turned out to be incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, it reminded me of some of my favourite authors: John Kennedy Toole, early Evelyn Waugh, Mitford and, dare I say it, Wodehouse. If we look at something like Waugh’s Scoop or Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, they rely on caricatures whose ‘quirkiness’ acts as a device to parody serious topics; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and British Fascism respectively. If you read those books seeking to avoid absurdity and encounter ‘whole’ characters you’ll be disappointed.

July’s novel seems so much in the same tradition I was honestly surprised to find people treating it as a Realist novel, wanting to ‘dig deeply’ into her characters or trying to see them ‘as a whole’. Not being particularly familiar with her other work, I read The First Bad Man as satire. Her characters aren’t that much different from Waugh’s inept William Boot, Mitford’s precocious Eugenia Malmain, Toole’s Ignatius or any number of ‘quirky’ Wodehouse characters.

Indeed, the book’s narrator, Cheryl, seems decidedly Wodehouse; mawkishly likeable and bumbling her way through various antics until she reaches her happy ending. I thought it notable that both Wodehouse and July have written for film, because their books both read like ensemble pieces, built on dialogue, very few locations and slapstick. Like Wodehouse, July takes familiar tropes, rhetorical devices and narrative arcs and pushes them just far enough they become hilarious.

The critique of ‘quirkiness’ seems to come from a thwarted attempt to read The First Bad Man as some sort of realistic portrayal of the author’s emotion. Is this because of her gender, because women aren’t meant to be funny or satirical, or simply because there’s too many reviewers hell bent on assuming smart writing has to be painstakingly earnest? Who knows. I thought this was a great book.

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. It portrays a middle aged woman, isn’t about heterosexuals or men, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Mists of Avalon, The Eagle of the Ninth and England: Patriarchy and Fantasy Fiction My Mother Probably Wouldn’t Like

Bradley, Duffy and SutcliffWhilst the rigors of life as a bureaucrat limit my time for writing, they’ve had the side effect of making me read more fiction than I have since I was a kid. Oddly enough, my taste in fiction doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much.

When I was ten I read Rosemary Sutfcliff’s The Witch’s Brat (about a disabled monk) and spent most of the year yearning to join a Benedictine order. Retrospectively, this was an unusual career path for the son of a lesbian feminist. Around the same time, my mother handed me a tome of fantasy fiction in which the protagonists were two scholars of medieval English history. One of them was a young post grad who’d taken part in the Kent State protests, and one of them was an aging professor who thought the students got what they deserved.

Inexplicably, both had the capacity to enter into a fantasy world, loosely based on post-Roman Britain, but with more dragons. The fantasy theme was a device for tinkering with the rise of Patriarchy during the Dark Ages. I remember at one point a powerful spell turns a bunch of warriors transgender. As a ten year old, I thought this was quite a clever and profound statement on gender politics.

As I made my own gradual decline into patriarchy, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading the Dragonlance books. When I finally emerged, it was into the canon of the Humanities, where they made us read Judith Butler and Gaytari Spivak. This was great, but lacked dragons, magic or faux-historical melodrama.

In the last few weeks I’ve followed up Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset with the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy. These were inspired by the legend of the Roman Ninth Cohort, which supposedly disappeared during an attempt to colonise Northern Britain. The final book in the trilogy is a prelude to Sword at Sunset, set in the years when Rome abandoned Britain, the Saxons invaded and the whole place went to shit.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon covers the exact same topic, re-writing the Arthur myth purely from the perspective of its female characters; Arthur’s sister Morgaine, Lady of the Lake Viviane, and the annoyingly pious Guinevere. Like Sutcliff, she looks at the coming of the Dark Ages, but positions it as the birth of a uniquely British Patriarchy.

Under Rome, she portrays Britain as a fairly heterogeneous place in which people still painted themselves blue, worshipped a mother goddess and followed lines of matrilineal kinship. This, more or less, is the society of Boudicca. As Bradley writes it, the British patriarchy didn’t kick in until Arthur used Christianity as a way of banding together people to fend off the Saxons. There’s a sort of undertone that patriarchy is distinctly unBritish, which is kind of interesting.

For a bit of historical context, I also read Maureen Duffy’s England: The Making of the Myth from Stonehenge to Albert Square. She points out that the English didn’t actually get to England until 400AD, part of a wave of Northern German colonisers trying to find more fertile land. Angle, their homeland, was in the modern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It was against these invaders that Arthur, who was probably Welsh, fought. As Duffy points out, his myth has been adapted to imply a fictional common origin between formerly warring Welsh, Cornish, Angle, Saxon, Pictish and various other Celtic people.

In that context, you can see why Sutcliff and, more obviously, Bradley, spend so much time writing about King Arthur; it’s here that the myth of British and English culture stems from, and here that we moved away from the matriarchy of Boudicca into the patriarchy live in now.

 

Would my Mother Enjoy These Books?

1. The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles by Rosemary Sutcliff: I think she’s already read them.

2. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Too much like the didactic 1970s, print is too small, too long.

3. England by Maureen Duffy: Interesting. She’d read it for a bit, and then decide she should walk the dog or do a spot of gardening.

True Stories by Inga Clendinnen

Inga Clendinnen’s True Stories assembles her 1999 Boyer essays, revised in 2008 after the fall of the Howard Government. She personifies what Howard would have described as ‘black armband history’.

Looking back over the settlement of Victoria, she follows Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson, sent to curb the violence of the squatocracy, in the 1840s. He didn’t have much luck. Going through his records, Clendinnen writes:

[Robinson] follows a trail of black complaints to the farm of a man called Francis. Francis blandly admits to having shot five blacks down by the river – they attacked him, he says, so he shot them, and later shot another black he saw running from his sheepfold close by the homestead. Robinson finds the man’s skull still lying where the body had fallen. He discovers that Francis has forbidden his black workers to touch the corpse. They have had to watch it as it withered, as dogs worried at it and dragged most of it away until only the skull is left.

The Aboriginal population around Port Phillip Bay declined by 85% in the first 25 years after contact. It’s hard to see how you’d document this as anything other than ‘Black Armband’ material. Yet Clendinnen rejects the term:

We need history: not Black Armband history, and not triumphalist white-out history either, but good history, true stories of the making of this present land, none of them simple, some of them painful, all of them part of our own individual histories.

Unfortunately, what jumps out from Clendinnen’s writing is the sense that things have moved backward over the past decade. I read this just after Abbott made his ‘lifestyle’ comments, which makes it perhaps a little harder to believe ‘true stories’ hold much weight. To that end, this is sort of an interesting time capsule as much as a set of essays; a reflection of a more optimistic era, albeit only a few years back.

Would My Mother Like This Book: In theory, yes. In practice, it’ s a bit grim. But she would read a couple of the essays and we would have a chat about it.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove_Jansson_1956Tove Jansson is best known for her children’s books on the Moomin trolls, but Sort of Books has just translated and published a bunch of her non-children’s books. They’re all great, but Fair Play has the added benefit of being the first book I’ve read this year I think my mother would actually like.

More than a children’s book author, Jansson is something of a bohemian icon; supposedly the original sketches for the Moomin family came from a derogatory sketch she drew of Immanuel Kant. There’s a documentary on her here:

I’ve read three books by Jansson in the past few months. I’ve been told they read like Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami; sparse in that Raymond Carver way, with a similar tendency towards narratives that work around the point, rather than towards it. That’s true, but Jansson is much more elegant and unique.

Fair Play is a series of vignettes based on Jansson and her partner, the Finnish designer and academic Tuulikki Pietilä. Jansson tends to write entirely pleasant short stories, of a length and tone perfect for someone who gets distracted every fifteen minutes or so by their dog, their garden or the need for a quick nap. This is true of all her work, but Fair Play has the added distinction of being about old women having adventures by the beach, as this picture shows: Tove JanssonFor this reason, I think it’s a safe bet my mother would like it.

 

Would my Mother enjoy this book?:

Yes, font size is good, can be read between naps/gardens/dog walks, and it is about old women going to the beach.

 

 

Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans by Clare Wright

Liquor licensing is, like planning and building law, fascinating in that it’s all about deciding who has the right to do certain things, and where they can do it. Unfortunately, it’s also very boring because its political impact is concealed by reams of dull regulation.

Accordingly, I was thrilled to find Clare Wright’s Beyond the Ladies Lounge, documenting the rise and fall of female pub owners in Australia, who were banned outright in some states, encouraged in others, and subject to the weird moralism that surrounds both alcohol and gender.

The sale of alcohol had, until the 18th century, always been dominated by women, and operated as an ad hoc cottage industry. With the mass production of alcohol in the 18th and 19th centuries, things began to change. Wright notes:

In South Australia… the Licensing Act 1908 prohibited single women from holding a publican’s license. Remarkably, in 1915, this disqualification was extended to include widows as single women.

Of the 700 hotels in SA at that point, about a quarter were owned by women, many of whom found their licenses revoked purely on grounds of their gender and marital status. In NSW, no single woman could apply for a new license after 1912, although they could take over an existing license. In Tasmania, the 1902 Act barred married women from holding a license, and disqualified all women aged under forty-five.

These laws were based around an assertion that alcohol consumption required moral moderation. Most states banned single women from holding a license on the grounds they might be immoral, banning bar maids for much the same reason. By contrast, married women, older women, widows and the occasional spinster could apply for licenses on the grounds that they possessed a matronly spirit which, it was felt, would give a public house a sense of calming domesticity. Wright cites Victoria as the key state for this approach, actively shaping its licensing laws to ensure female licenses acted as ‘moral guardians’.

Wright makes an interesting point that this attitude changed when Six O’Clock Closing came in, at which point the pub ceased to be a ‘domestic’ environment:

The distinct snugs and parlours which catered to a variety of intimate social exchanges were sacrificed to the ‘egalitarian’ needs of after-work drinkers… tables and chairs were removed; billiard tables, dart boards and lounge furniture sacrificed for sheer empty space that could be filled by the daily crush of bodies.

During that time, the Temperance Movement successfully turned the pub from something akin to a private house into a building with a “cold, lavatory like atmosphere”, taking with it the sense of domesticity, which had legitimised female ownership. Regaining the ‘moral influence’ of women in the front bar was, oddly enough, one of the arguments for the retraction of 6 O’Clock closing, as this beer had attests:

Actually, this one is even better:

If this sounds of interest to you, you should also look up Jessica Warner’s excellent Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, which looks at the way female licensees were simply priced out of the market through high licensing fees. This is essentially the same tactic still used to discourage smaller enterprise, and retain a monopoly in certain areas.

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

Yes, but she’d probably only read the beginning and the end.

Sheila Heti’s ‘How Should a Person Be’

I was told that Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be (2010) was a bit like Chris Kraus’s 1997 book I Love Dick.

This isn’t an inappropriate comparison. Both books are about defining one’s sense of self through one’s relationship to others. Kraus uses a semi-fictionalised account of her relationship with the hot shot cultural studies academic Dick Hebdige, whilst Heti draws from her friendship with the artist Margaux Williamson.

The second difference is that Heti’s book is much easier to read.

I once got in an argument with an award winning poet after I suggested Wodehouse was a better writer than James Joyce. He demanded I retract this assertion, I refused and he threatened to kill me. I am still alive, which tells you something about the conclusion of the argument.

I suspect I could have a similar debate in comparing Kraus to Heti. You could say Heti’s work reflects a younger, feminist voice. There’s an interview with her in Rookie Magazine, which perhaps gives some context. Alternately, you could say she simply lacks Kraus’s grueling self analysis and audacity. This is a matter of taste. Personally, I like an author who writes to be read.

That said, one of the things I liked about Kraus’ book was that she laid into the image of the male genius, using Hebdige as her foil. Apparently he hated the book, probably because it portrays him as a snooty jerk. Heti takes the same approach, albeit without such a clear cut target. For example, she writes:

One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time.

I thought this was a good critique, as there is a very definite model for the male genius: moody, grumpy men, usually with alcohol or substance abuse problems, stomping around their studios having brilliant thoughts, much like this:

Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac are good examples. It would be good to have a new type of genius out there, because dealing with those guys can be a bit tiring. Also, On the Road was even worse than Ulysses. I’m not sure I’d say How Should A Person Be is a work of genius, but it’s a good deal better than On the Road.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Sword at Sunset’

Rosemary Sutcliff's 'Sword at Sunset'.

For Christmas, I got a shoeshine kit and Rosemary Sutcliff’s sprawling rendition of the King Arthur’s myth, Sword at Sunset (1963). The latter is unique in that Sutcliff takes out Camelot and the Round Table, and presents Arthur as a stress riddled, impotent king trying to rally argumentative Celts and fend of Saxon barbarians. The book opens with him on his deathbed, having been mortally stabbed in the groin by his son.

Sutcliff was a best seller in the Fifties and Sixties, writing more than sixty books, including the best selling Eagle of the Ninth series. This was released as a film last year, which possibly explains why Sword at Sunset has been re-published.

Incidentally, there’s a delightfully camp interview with the director, Kevin MacDonald, here:

Most of Sutcliff’s fiction was aimed at children. The oddity is her work is devoid of cliché or fantasy, offering instead a grimly realistic image of the English prior to 1066. This doesn’t necessarily sound like it would be popular amongst Tweens, but I first read it when I was ten and loved it.

Mother gave me Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat when I was ten. I remember it well: the story of a crippled boy whose grandmother is declared a witch and lynched by the local villagers, setting off a chain of events whereby he becomes a monk.

I thought it was great and spent a year wanting to become a monk. I gave up because I couldn’t find religion, but retained my interest in Roman and Celtic Britain. In Year Six we had to play Celebrity Head and my contribution was Richard the Lion Heart, which the other kid didn’t guess.

You can imagine most of the cast of Time Team probably read Sutcliff’s books when they were young. Notably, that’s one of my favourite shows. They actually did an episode on King Arthur, which you can watch here:

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?: No. Too grim, too long, a dog gets killed at one point.

On My Mother’s Taste in Literature

When my mother got into her mid-thirties she decided she’d read enough books by men, and has almost exclusively read women’s writing ever since.

When I turned thirty-four last year, I was thinking about this. I counted through my bookshelf and it was about 70% books by men. They were mostly good books (mostly Wodehouse), but I did start to wonder if maybe I too had now read enough books by male authors.

Accordingly, last year I decided to reign back a little. By the end of the year, I’d got it down to about 40%. That moderate decrease led to a substantial discovery of female writers I’d never read before and subsequently loved: Madeline St John, Deborah Levy, Jessica Mitford, Elizabeth von Arnim, Romy Ash and a whole bunch of others.

Also, last year I noticed a lot of online complaints by ‘Men’s Rights Activists’, mostly writing about women’s work in a fairly hostile tone.

With that in mind, I thought I’d extend upon my mother’s example and only read novels by women this year.

Taking a leaf out of the Men’s Rights Movement handbook, I thought I’d write up little online reviews, applying the same enthusiasm for writing about women’s work as they do, but without the underlying assumption that such work infringes on my ‘rights’.

Moreover, my mother is a fairly selective reader, so I thought posting some book reviews might be useful for her. I’ll include a little summary ranking as to whether I think she’ll enjoy each book or not.

I’ll post the first review shortly. I’ve chosen to start with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset.  I know Mother was a big Sutcliff fan as a child. She introduced me to her books during my own youth, leading to an unfortunate enthusiasm for Pre-Saxon British history.