Monday, 17 December 2012

The Winds of Heaven - Monica Dickens

Firstly, just thought I'd let you know that I'm back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.

Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled.  I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there's no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive.  However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps - which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone's ethos.  Today's book is at the light, frothy end of the scale - the book I'll review tomorrow is serious and important.  I'm very glad to have read both.


My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it's been on my large pile of books I'm looking forward to reading - especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens' semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet.  But haven't yet, somehow, read Mariana.  Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those - gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower's lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)

Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:
When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety.  She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation.  In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes.  Having recently read V.S. Pritchett's complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise's husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain.  Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards.  Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits - every marriage in the novel has at least one 'bad'un', and sometimes two.  On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice.  Here are the various daughters and families:

1.) Miriam - sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel.  Husband Arthur - cross, irascibile.  Daughter Ellen - sensitive, withdrawn, kind.  Other children Simon and Judy - young, excitable.

2.) Eva - bohemian.  Lover David - unreliable.

3.) Anne - lazy.  Husband Frank - adorable.

I'm being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost.  It just isn't a finely-drawn, perceptive novel - it's light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.  It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton's novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art.  Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.

Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre.  Chief amongst these is Louise's situation - being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes.  In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story - in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking.  Serious themes do not a serious novel make.  Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening.  In fact, I'm trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy - from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery.  I think it's the same experience one has when watching a soap opera - the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it's impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.

All of which sounds like I'm damning Monica Dickens with faint praise - but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative.  Dickens' writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character - just one surrounded by characters who aren't particularly.  And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone?  It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel.  It's the light end of the Persephone scale, but it's perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix.  Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers... and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.


14 comments:

  1. I think my expectations for this were raised by having adored Mariana and One Pair of Hands. It is one of the few Persephone titles that I have read and not loved. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember thinking it was too simplistic (in characters, plots, everything) and that Dickens didn't have the flair to pull off ridiculous domestic melodrama that Whipple, for example, had. I kept feeling like Dickens wanted me to feel sorry for Louise but I couldn't muster up any sympathy for a character who felt so unlike a real person.

    But speaking of Dickens, I picked up One Pair of Feet for fifty cents at a library book sale last week!

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    1. I remembered that you hadn't loved it - I think that, as well as another Clare (well, spelled differently!) in an online book group not thinking very highly of it, tempered my expectations. I love a bit of ridiculous domestic melodrama occasionally, but I can't take it too seriously... just enjoyable fluff, despite the saddening themes.

      Hurrah for One Pair of Feet! Enjoy!

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  2. I really enjoyed this one too Simon. Must say though I cried over the ending and did feel terribly for Louise. I thought the family were all too believable even if you say roughly drawn. I've been re-reading her children's books about World's End and am enjoying those as well.

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    1. Oh Donna, you have a kinder heart than I do! I'm afraid I wasn't near tears, but I did think the bit where the daughters hung their heads was very moving, and the subtlest thing in the book.

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  3. I have Mariana and another M.Dickens whose name escapes me on the shelves. She's yet another author I've been meaning to get to know... One for the TBR Dare pile perhaps.

    Incidentally, it must have taken you ages to reply to all those comments. It was a timely post though, and much appreciated.

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    1. She was certainly prolific - I have about a dozen of her books, all of which (except the Persephones) I have found in charity shops. I'm looking forward to Joy and Josephine, as I've heard good things about that one.

      It did take quite a while! Thanks Annabel - I replied to them with Sports Personality of the Year in the background. Not that I much cared who won, but it was a noise in the room.

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  4. Oh you are clever...The Winds of Heaven and the Archers, I completely agree with you! I read this one quite a while ago but do remember particularly enjoying the grandmother/granddaughter relationship in it.

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    1. Thanks Darlene ;) Oh, yes, the grandmother/granddaughter relationship was the loveliest part of this - although I do wonder whether social services would allow a grandmother to whisk a child off into an unsafe caravan!

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  5. I read The Winds of Heaven alongside Illyrian Spring and All Passion Spent - made an interesting trio that I wanted to say lots about, so much so that I never quite found the time to embark on it. Maybe it'll happen one day, but I'd now have to find the time to re-read them. Hmm, I love blogging, but I do wish there were more non-working hours in the day, especially as I'm sitting beside a delicious pile of library books collected this morning - lovely Christmas reading!

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  6. I did enjoy it better than Mariana, which was just too insipid. But you can see why she did so well in Woman's Own! Of course, Woman's Own was much nicer in those days.

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  7. Oh, Monica Dickens! She's one of (please forgive me, MD, whatever heavenly plane you now hang out in) my go-to, no-effort-to-digest, comfort read authors! No, never too deep, but often poignant and moving, and she tells a good story and I've read and re-read every single one of her adult novels with the sole exception of The Landlord's Daughter which I'm saving for a rainy day. (I think it's one of the "bleak" ones - she does do bleak oftenish with her later tales.)

    The children's books - meh. Cobbler's Dream was pretty awesome - I'm a horse person & MD did know her equines - some of her best-depicted characters have 4 legs - and my daughter loved the World's End books, but I found most of the rest pretty sub-par.

    Hands & Feet remain favourites, but I think the one I love the very best is The Fancy, about a foreman and his crew of assorted woman munitions workers during World War II. I would say this is a must-read, but I'm a little afraid others won't like it as much as I did, so I'll tentatively push that out there as a recommendation.

    Winds of Heaven - while it's not one I'd consider top end in MD's whole range of work, it's definitely an enjoyable read. No tears here, Louise isn't pathetic, not by a long shot, and I didn't get that MD wanted us to feel all that sorry for her - and her eventual attainment of some semblance of independence (briefly) and love is indeed moving. I liked it that her love interest was so "common" - an antidote to the deeply seated snobbishness of so many of these vintage authors. Dickens picks apart her less than top-drawer characters as much as she does the upper class ones, but always with humour and often with a nod of approval.

    Gosh, I love this author. Flaws & all. So good to see another review of one of her books! I need to get going on that myself, but find it hard to talk about books/authors I consider stand-by reads; so hard to pick them apart & put them back together again for public consumption! I just adore with wordless dedication. :-)

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  8. I picked up One Pair of Hands after scouring your "50 Books..." list and absolutely loved it. I think I'll read One Pair of Feet next before some of the other titles mentioned here.

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  9. Interestingly this didn't read to me like you were giving it damning praise and that you were just enjoying it but almost checking yourself for why, unusual. I think this sounds rather good to be honest and has made me rather more excited than I was about reading Mariana over the next week or so, especially as Nicola said on the Persephone post that they were all worried I might not ha!

    Do join in with that one!

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  10. Coincidentally, I picked this up in a charity shop "last chance" bin around the time your post appeared. I had never read her either and your review prompted me to give her a try. Yes, it is not fine writing but, oh, I did enjoy it! You are right it is the literary equivalent of "The Archers"(high praise indeed)and felt rather bereft on finishing it. It is warm, humane and very readable and a perfect with a late night hot choc!

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