Paperback reviews: The Poets’ Daughters, Flora, The Inheritor’s Powder, Tiger Woman: My Story, Reasons She Goes To The Woods

 

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The Independent Culture

The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave (Windmill £9.99)

It is not axiomatic that famous parents will overshadow their children. But perhaps William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were just too much for any child to compete with, no matter what their own literary gifts were (Dora W published her journals, Sara C her tribute to her father with Biographia Literaria).

Katie Waldegrave does an excellent job showing the trials and tribulations of Dora and Sara, who were born within two years of one another, and who for a time shared a household – in Wordsworth’s chaotic home – while Coleridge headed off for other climes. Dora was wilful and unfeminine, Sara was beautiful and clever.

Both had complicated relationships with their fathers, as might be expected. For Sara, Coleridge was almost a stranger when she was young, and she struggled in later years to establish a satisfactory relationship with him. Not until he died and she could pen her own tribute, and establish her own literary reputation, does one sense she achieved peace. A psychologist might muse that the source of much of her drug-taking lay in her unfulfilled relationship with him.

For Dora, a role was ready and waiting: handmaiden to the man who made a career out of getting women to help him at every turn. Like Sara, she too suffered illnesses that might be considered psychosomatic, a response to the demands of literary success that manifested itself in compulsive dieting. Both women married after some difficulty: Sara’s husband’s family were opposed to her as the daughter of the scandalous Coleridge, and Dora’s husband, Edward, had a possessive father-in-law to contend with. Waldegrave, sympathetic and considerate as she is, prefers not to psychologise, but she admits to the occasional tantalising gap in their respective stories that only a novelist could make use of.

****

Flora by Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury £8.99)

From L P Hartley’s The Go-Between to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the idea of a child’s punctured innocence leading to tragedy and disaster for the adults around has been a powerful and popular one. Godwin’s novel doesn’t tell us anything new, but it builds suspense and characterisation with such care that it feels fresh. Helen is aged 10 when her older cousin, Flora, arrives to look after her while Helen’s father is engaged elsewhere on secret war work. Helen is a somewhat cynical child, who despises Flora’s easy, trusting nature: Helen has lost both a mother and a grandmother so she has little reason to trust in the Universe’s benevolence. She can barely even bring herself to write to her friend who has contracted polio; it seems that compassion is almost beyond her. Yet Godwin makes us care about this awkward child who has known too much death and who often feels herself slipping between one world and the next. Her losses have damaged her, but nobody, it seems, appears really to have noticed.

*****

The Inheritor’s Powder by Sandra Hempel (Phoenix £8.99)

Hempel’s exploration of the case of George Bodle, a wealthy landowner who in 1833 died of arsenic poisoning, does not just illuminate the once horrifyingly easy purchase of lethal potions. It also highlights the inadequacy of the police of the past. There is an almost farcical moment when one PC Morris, having searched the property of the prime suspect, Bodle’s grandson, duly carries off packets marked “poison”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t carry them off to the nearest police station, but to a series of pubs where his drunken companions happily rub the poison all over their clothes. It is little wonder, after such a shambles of an investigation, that a guilty verdict should prove elusive.

****

Tiger Woman: My Story by Betty May Duckworth (Overlook £8.99)

There was plenty to scandalise audiences of the 1920s when Betty May’s autobiography was first published: her many marriages, her drug-taking, her involvement with Aleister Crowley’s mystical sect. And plenty to have made her a celebrity. This was a woman born into dire poverty, whose mother gave her back to her profligate drunken father to live in a brothel, and whose own irrepressible energy meant leaving home when she was still a teenager and somehow finding herself in the middle of Bohemian life. She is frank about the men in her life, about her early involvement with gangs, and her dependency on cocaine. This new publication coincides with a musical about her life.

***

Reasons She Goes To The Woods by Deborah Kay Davies (One World £8.99)

Davies gives us single-paged glimpses of the disturbed life of Pearl, whose mother is regularly hospitalised and whose father struggles to cope with her and her younger brother. Pearl is a marvellously contradictory creation, showing the cruelty in children as well as their neediness, their capacity for love and friendship. Pearl may bully her little brother but she also saves him from other bullies. She attracts friends and also abuses them and abandons them. Davies’s novel reads almost like a prose poem, and if not as sensuously luxurious as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, it is still reminiscent of that work in its unsparing introspection.

****

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