Sunday, August 7, 2016

Focusing on the women in post-World War I

I can tell that every single installment in this series 
is going to be yet another absolutely superb book. 
That makes me very happy! :)

Mary has just completed a months-long research project 
with which she is very satisfied; 
her "first effort as a mature scholar." And...
I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a féte which 
had reached fever pitch in this, the last year 
of my aunt's control of what she saw as the family purse. 
The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, 
one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to my twenty-first birthday and 
all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. 
A small but persistent niggle of trepidation 
                                                 tried to make itself known, 
                            but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing. (3)
Ah, well, I just assume that "trepidation" must somehow involve Sherlock, amIright?!?
I did not have to think about my choice of goals--I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner, and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. 
Hence my anticipation. Hence also the trepidation. (4)
Yes, I was correct! :) True to form, Mary dresses in "the most moth-eaten of her long-dead father's suits," gathers whatever money she has squirreled away over the years, 
put on my boots and the dingy overcoat I kept at the back of the cupboard beneath the stairs, 
and escaped from the overheated, overcrowded, emotion-laden house 
into the clear, cold sea air of the Sussex Downs. My breath smoked around me and 
my feet crunched across patches not yet thawed by the watery sunlight, 
and by the time I reached Holmes' cottage five miles away, 
I felt clean and calm for the first time since leaving Oxford at the end of the term. (5)   
I adore King's writing! I mean, I feel as if I'm doing the walking! She puts ME right there! I am Mary! Once Mary reaches Sherlock's house she learns from Mrs. Hudson that he has gone "to Town." 

Mary travels to London to find Holmes, whom she knew would be driving a hack (as determined from the clothes he had worn), and succeeded! However, their conversation ended with her literally doing a back-flip to get off the hack, and tossing items at the horse until it bolted, while she ran in the opposite direction, with Holmes failing to locate her in the aftermath. What made her so angry? His insistence that she had hunted him down to ask him a question. And that question was...?
"Come now, Russell, you are a great proponent of the emancipation of women; 
surely you can manage to carry out your intentions in this little matter."
"Little?" I seized on the word, as he knew I would. "First you place the proposition in my mouth,          and then you denigrate it. I don't know why I even--" I bit back the words.
"Why you thought of it in the first place, is that what you were about to say?"
..."So, why did you think of it?" he pressed, his voice calm but with a finely honed edge to it. "Have I given you any reason to believe that I might welcome such a suggestion?
I am fifty-nine years old, Russell, and I have long been accustomed to the privacy and freedom 
of the bachelor life. Do you imagine that I might succumb to the dictates of social norms 
and marry you in order to stop tongues from wagging when we go off together? 
Or perhaps you imagine that the pleasures of the wedding bed might prove irresistible?" (13)
Ha! That Holmes. He is definitely irresistible to consider as a lifelong partner, isn't he? ;)

Later that night, Mary is spotted by Lady Veronica Beaconsfield, "a lodgings mate in Oxford," that ultimately brings Russell and Holmes "a case" to investigate. Though first, Mary sleeps the rest of the day at Ronnie's lodging and they speak later:
Revelations that come easily at night are harder by the light of day. (26)
Ah, that is so true, is it not? What we're willing to divulge late at night can differ greatly come the following morning. :) But Ronnie divulges "an all-too-common story in those postwar years." 
There was a man; rather, there had been a man... A friend in 1914, he joined the New Army in 1915, was sent virtually untrained to the Western Front, and promptly walked into a bullet; sent home for eight weeks' recovery, their friendship deepened: He returned to the trenches, numerous letters followed, and then he was gassed in 1917 and again sent home: an engagement ring followed: he returned yet again to the Front, was finally demobbed in January 1919, a physically ruined, mentally frail mockery of his former self, liable to black, vicious moods and violent tempers alternating with periods of either manic gaiety or bleak inertia, when all he could do 
was silently smoke one cigarette after another, seeming completely unaware of other people. 
It was called shell shock, the nearly inevitable aftermath of month after month in hell, 
and every man who had been in the trenches had it to some degree...
Veronica no longer wore the ring. (26-27) 
What struck me about this is that first, it is quite an accurate description of what we now term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and secondly, I had never really considered, before reading this series as well as the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, that such disabilities in the aftermath of warfare truly began after World War I. At least this was (as far as I know) the first time such a vast number of people had been involved in "modern warfare" across the globe. I know it was the first war in which truly advanced technology allowed the killing and wounding of such vast numbers. And then, having read Robin Oliveira's My Name is Mary Sutter, I realize the ineptitude of "medical professionals" (I use that term rather loosely, given the fact that little to no education was required.) to deal with even the most basic of physical injuries, let alone any emotional damage. Remember, this was prior to knowledge there were such things as "germs" and "bacteria" that could cause infection, hence, most of the men treated for physical wounds died of the resultant, seemingly inevitable, infections. I particularly appreciated King's emphasis on physiological dependency versus emotional dependency with regard to addiction. She demonstrated much insight. 

Since then, Ronnie has involved herself in a religious organizaton, The New Temple in God, through which much good is done for those who are 'less fortunate' than herself. Upon experiencing a 'service' performed by the head of this religious organization, Margery Childe, Ronnie asks if Mary would like to "go back and say hello" to this woman. 
I would like. I was fascinated, impressed, more than a bit repelled, and altogether extremely curious. The woman had played her audience like a finely tuned instrument, 
handling nearly four hundred people with the ease of a seasoned politician. 
Even I, non-Christian and hardened cynic that I am, has found it difficult to resist her. 
She was a feminist and she had a sense of humour, an appealing combination that was regrettably rare, and she came across as a person who was deeply, seriously committed to her beliefs, 
yet who retained the distance and humanity to laugh at herself. 
She was articulate without being pompous, and apparently self-educated since the age of fifteen. Her attitude towards the Bible seemed to be refreshingly matter-of-fact, and her theology, 
miracle of miracles, was from what I had heard radical but sound. 
Oh, yes, I should like to meet this woman. (37)
Remember, Mary was a theology major, so she knows a thing or two about this. As you might imagine, there is much more 'behind the scenes' than Mary initially knew or noticed. And, I was anxious to see how Laurie King, who is educated in theology herself, played out this theme. Though I, myself, am much like Mary in my own beliefs, I enjoy intellectual discussions and musings about religion, if the arguments are based on some sort of rational thought or logic, rather than strictly emotional "blind faith." (However, I do take it a bit further in that I am an atheist, believing in no deity whatsoever. I feel as if Mary may feel the same...) 

Mary observes that each person in this seemingly 'elite' circle of congregants takes a rose from a huge vase at the entrance to the back room and lays it at Margery's feet as they enter the room. As Mary enters she notes,
She was calm and sure and filled with power beyond her years and, I had to admit, 
enormously compelling. The room waited for me to lay my rose at her feet and 
do my obeisance so it could get on with its courtly rituals.
Without taking my eyes from hers, I raised the flower with great deliberation and 
threaded it into a buttonhole, then stepped forward and extended my hand to her.
"How do you do?" I said, and smiled with noncommittal politeness. (39)
Ah, yes, that's our Mary Russell--always willing to push the envelope just a bit, isn't she? Rebellious to the end. That is just one of the many traits I love about this character! This initial meeting ends with Margery stating:
"Perhaps you might stay on a bit after my friends have left? I should like a word." (40)
As answer/assent Mary "inclined her head silently" and sat in a corner of the room.
The next hour would have been excruciatingly boring had it not been 
for the undercurrents and interplay that I found absolutely fascinating. 
She played this room with the same ease that she had played the hall, 
though to very different purpose. Before, her aim had been exhortation, inspiration, 
perhaps a bit of thought provocation. Here, she was acting as spiritual counsellor, 
mother confessor, and guiding light to this, her inner circle, drawing them out and 
drawing them together into a cohesive whole around herself. 
Fourteen women (excluding myself), all of them young (the oldest was thirty-four or thirty-five), all reasonably attractive, all obviously wealthy, intelligent, and well-bred, and all of them 
with that ineffable but unmistakable air of women who had not sat still during the war. (40)
These women had all supported the war effort to the best of their physical ability, most of them risking their own lives at or near the front in supporting roles. Such an eye-opening look at the world after World War I and it's devastation. 

Mary stays and speaks with Margery, eventually agreeing to help her, realizing that this woman's 
humility had trapped me as her authority could not, and her expressions of gratitude at my offer had an edge of triumph. Reluctantly, disarmed, I gave her my wry smile, and she laughed. (56)
She was friendly and relaxed and self-deprecating, but I could not feel entirely at ease with her. Precisely what it was about her that I found unsettling, I could not pin down. 
Partly, it was the childlike size of her, which made me tower awkwardly...Partly, it was the way she walked so very close, her shoulder occasionally brushing my sleeve, so that I breathed in 
her not-unattractive aroma of sweat and hot silk and some subtle and musky perfume.
Partly, it was the awareness of how easily she had found a weakness in my ready defences and made me agree to help her. Mostly, though, it was an intangible, a low, pulsing wave of fascination and discomfiture that continued, even now, to radiate from her like some fabulous tropical flower whose heavenly fragrance mesmerises the insects on which it feeds. 
It was with relief that I wished her a good night. However, the relief was tempered by a certain wistful regret, and by the awareness that I had not entirely escaped the trap after all. (57)
By this point I was really this a group of lesbians? Is this her attempt to recruit women as lesbians? It just seemed to me there must be some insidious underlying intent...

Margery's sermon on love:
..."the flow of love, like the flow of a stream, suffers from being blocked up and kept to one's self. Water damned up becomes stale, dank. Love not given out becomes dead and slimy.
When we express our love, when we act as conduits for divine love, 
then the love within us is continually renewed, refreshed, restored. (110)
Though I don't believe the ability to love comes from any deity, I do agree with this statement. Mary decides
Despite her unread, unsophisticated, raw, rude, and unlettered approach to Scripture, 
when it came to zeroing in on her target, she was dead-centre accurate...
It hit me about halfway through her talk...what...I was hearing...was a mystic.
What I was hearing was an untutored woman singing to God int eh only voice she possessed:
a simple voice, unsuited to high opera, but not without beauty. (111)

Mary coerces Holmes to help Veronica's former fiancé with his addiction. (There is a reference to Holmes' own son and his struggle with addiction, which has me curious.) Mary continues work on her next academic paper which deals with the essential question: "Can a feminist be a Jew, or a Jew a feminist?" We learn she is to give a joint presentation with another colleague on January 28th. Little does Mary know that through her continued interest in The New Temple in God and interaction with Margery Childe, she will be 'indisposed' on January 28th...

King begins each chapter with a pertinent quote from various older texts, adding to the reader's understanding, and my vehemence! The majority iterate the beliefs of women being submissive, subject to men's authority, etc. :) Though I did particularly enjoy this one:
A woman's guess is much more accurate than a man's certainty.
                                                                                              --Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Agreed! :) Women are dying. These deaths are discounted as "accidents" or less, but Mary grows particularly suspicious and formally involved in the investigation following her good friend, Veronica's, narrow escape from death. The only commonality she can discover is Margery Childe. Mary's own "guesswork"
"...begins with the war and the perfectly appalling numbers of young men who were killed and crippled during those four years. At the beginning of the War, there were around six million men in this country of a marrying age, between twenty and forty. By the end of 1918, nearly a million of them lay dead. Another two million were wounded, half of them so badly damaged, mentally or physically, that they may never recover. Where does this leave some two to three million healthy young women who would ordinarily have married healthy young men and spent the rest of their lives caring for babies and husbands? The papers refer to them--us!--as 'surplus women,' 
as if our poor planning left us here while the men were removed. 
The women who ran this country, and ran it well, from 1915 to 1919, 
have now been pushed from their jobs to make way for the returning soldiers. 
Strong, capable women are now made to feel redundant in both the workplace and the home, 
and no...this is not just suffragette ranting..." (209)

This one got a bit dark as Mary was held captive and Holmes was gone...but...although it did turn out that Margery's connections were not the best, she herself, was not implicated in any of the crimes.

What of Holmes and Russell?
Let's just say that 38 year age difference doesn't matter...when you're 'in love'!
Though there were negotiations, finalized by a firm handshake!

I love this series!
I hope you're able to read something you love just as much!
Happy reading

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