Patricia Craig

Patricia Craig whose books include The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction, written with Mary Cadogan, is working on a study of Northern Irish poetry and fiction.


Patricia Craig, 3 December 1992

Jenefer Shute’s Life-Size comes garnished with a quote from Fay Weldon, in which enthusiasm has got the better of taste: ‘Terrific! I devoured it at a sitting.’ ‘Devour’ is not a word one would choose to apply to a novel about the suppression of appetites, however jocularly. This book is full of rage and disgust. ‘They say I’m sick, but what about them, all of them, who think nothing of chewing on a carcass, sinking their teeth into muscle and gristle and blood?’ Thus muses the first-person narrator of Life-Size, five foot two inches, weighing less than seventy pounds; Josie, a graduate student in economics, is far advanced along the line of self-starvation. Anorexia nervosa has her in its grip. She has gone far beyond temperance – the observation quoted above needn’t seem all that askew if you take it as a prescription for vegetarianism, not near-abstinence – into some ferocious realm of self-denial. Finally her flatmate has contacted her parents and Josie is now installed in hospital, where she battles to maintain the lowest possible weight, to this end subjecting her breakfast, lunch and dinner trays to uncompromising scrutiny. All right, faced with a plateful of corpses, embryos and fluid from mammary glands, who wouldn’t baulk? But there’s more to this recoil of Josie’s than just calling things by their proper names.’

Pious Girls and Swearing Fathers

Patricia Craig, 1 June 1989

‘An Adventure of Master Tommy Trusty; and his delivering Miss Biddy Johnson, from the Thieves who were going to murder her’: this is the charming title of a story in the first-ever children’s periodical, the Lilliputian Magazine, brought out by John Newbery in 1751, and with its theme of character-moulding (a silly little girl is cured of vanity through suffering a fright) it set the tone for a good deal of juvenile magazine fiction for some time. Right up until the 1930s and Forties, characters in the children’s papers were still being moulded, sometimes with equal suddenness, as defects such as snobbishness or spite were ironed out of them. But it was during the last century that the reformist impulse in children’s authors was at its strongest. Such papers as there were, were full of fearful warnings about the likely outcome of frivolity or disobedience. Give in to naughtiness, the message was, and you will pay dearly for it: after the misdoing (being boisterous on a Sunday, or coveting a pear), as likely as not, comes the deathbed scene – however, Kirsten Drotner tells us, pictures of dying children were sometimes juxtaposed with elephants and giraffes, presumably to keep readers’ spirits from subsiding altogether. Not that all fictional children were seen as wilful – on the contrary, the misbehavers had their counterparts in the horde of priggish young who set about eroding the turpitude of wicked adults, as in the magazine story of 1827 called ‘The Pious Girl and her Swearing Father’: judging by her clinging attitude (she is illustrated with both arms clasped around his neck), he had plenty to swear about.’


Patricia Craig, 2 March 1989

There’s a moment near the start of Ulysses when a symbol for the whole of Irish art presents itself to Joyce’s exasperated alter ego: ‘the cracked looking-glass of a servant’. As a gloss on this we have, among other commentaries, the remarks of G.J. Watson in his study of 1979, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival. Joyce, as Watson reminds us, was with this image repudiating not only the fatuities of Victorian stage-Irishness as a literary mode, but also their glorified replacement, once Yeats, Lady Gregory and the rest of them got going on the campaign to add dignity to Ireland. ‘The looking-glass, cracked, does not tell the truth’ – and the resulting distortions are, in a sense, John Wilson Foster’s subject in his impressive new scrutiny of the revival era (roughly the period between 1890 and the early 1930s). The word ‘fictions’ in Foster’s title denotes both fictional themes and concomitant misbeliefs: for example, about the incorruptibility of Irish peasant life.’

Those for whom India proves too strong

Patricia Craig, 31 March 1988

A lot of ground is covered by Three Continents. We begin in America with a pair of zealous twins, Harriet and Michael Wishwell (pronounced Witchell), 19 years old, both owning and expecting a lot of inherited assets, money and property, and both avid to serve some striking cause. ‘Michael, my twin brother, and I always wanted something other – better – than we had,’ declares Harriet, the narrator, at the start of this long novel. An Indian movement to promote world unity appears to fit the bill. At the centre of this movement are the Rawul, amiable prince of an insignificant Indian kingdom, his opulent consort the Rani, and dishy Crishi, the couple’s – so it is believed – adopted son. Michael, who has met these exciting people on his travels abroad, invites them and their followers to make themselves at home at his flighty mother’s house Propinquity, in upstate New York, which they do with such thoroughness that they end by taking over the house and all in it. Harriet, who, in spite of her brother’s enthusiasm, at first holds aloof from the Rawul’s Transcendental Internationalism and from the movement’s founders, is eventually bowled over by wily Crishi; he takes off his pyjama trousers (Indian) on a beach at midnight, and things proceed to a natural conclusion. This is heiress Harriet’s first taste of ecstatic sex, and it goes to her head. She proceeds to marry him.’

Separate Development

Patricia Craig, 10 December 1987

The fuss about gender continues. Feminist criticism has gone off in several odd directions lately, resorting more and more to jargon of the gynocentric, phallogocentric variety, and positing a peculiarly feminine way of looking at things, a mode consistently belittled in the patriarchal conditions that have always prevailed. What started as a legitimate scrutiny of past mistreatment of women, in life and in books, seems to have turned into an assertion of some intangible feminine principle. True, a similar principle was being evoked in the early Thirties by John Cowper Powys, when he commended Dorothy Richardson for having dredged up her novels ‘out of the abyss of feminine consciousness’; and there’s Virginia Woolf’s famous comment on the same set of novels, when she noted their author’s mastery over what she termed ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. However, we should bear in mind another remark of Virginia Woolf’s: that ‘a woman’s writing is always feminine … the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine.’ What we don’t mean, surely, is a special way with words. ‘If anatomy is not destiny,’ says Mary Jacobus in her rigorous, scholarly collection of essays, Reading Woman, ‘still less can it be language.’

Getting on

Patricia Craig, 17 September 1987

There are many small remote communities on the northern and western fringes of the British Isles which seem to have been in a state of decline for the last hundred years or so, as invasions and disruptions from the modern world set about eroding their integrity. Various age-old ways of life were seen to be unable to stand up in the face of such importations as the bicycle and the motor-powered engine. One question that arose straight away was whether one took the side of progress or tradition. Were the cut-off communities better in their unadulterated state, or was it time the amenities of everyday life were extended to them?


Patricia Craig, 23 April 1987

With A Darkness in the Eye M.S. Power completes his terrorist trilogy. It is set, as are parts one and two, in a characterless city called Belfast, and opens as they do with news of a killing, before back-tracking to delineate the circumstances in which the victim met his end. The current victim is Seamus Reilly, himself previously a death-dealer on a large scale – one-time head, in fact, of the IRA’s Punishment Squad, and author of quite a few bloody dispatches. Reilly has come round, a bit late in the day, to a democratic way of thinking. He is, we are told, doing his utmost to put an end to ‘the violence that crippled the province’. This new attitude puts him at odds with those among his former associates who remain addicted to slaughter. Within the IRA, peace-lovers like Reilly are labelled ‘doves’, while the rest go under the name of ‘hawks’. At the start of the novel, three hawks detach themselves from Reilly’s unit, deciding to go it alone. They are a short fat father of many children, a nail-biter of small intelligence, and a personable blonde referred to throughout as ‘the woman’ or ‘that woman’. ‘It’s that woman I worry about,’ says Reilly’s Commander. ‘She’s the one that will most resent the power being taken from her. They always do. Women.’ No voice demurs at this judgment.’

Green War

Patricia Craig, 19 February 1987

Wars and battles: these words, appearing prominently in the titles of two of the books under consideration, might give the impression that poetry, or criticism, or the criticism of poetry, is a belligerent business. It doesn’t stop with the book titles, either: the chapter on Edna Longley in W.J. McCormack’s short and contentious study of Irish cultural debate requires us to attend to ‘the reaction from Ulster’, and sums it up thus: ‘Fighting or Writing?’ This humorously echoes the famous anti-Home Rule poster with its caption, ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,’ while referring specifically to the critical reception of the ‘Field Day’ pamphlets (nine to date), which deal with questions – thorny questions – of identity and cultural heritage in Ireland. Edna Longley, McCormack says, ‘has been the most consistent critic of the “Field Day” enterprise’, taking issue, as she does, with its refusal to distinguish properly between poetry and politics (fusing the two, that is, instead of allowing them to interact productively).’

The Shirt of Nessan

Patricia Craig, 9 October 1986

Piers Paul Read’s Free Frenchman is Bertrand de Roujay, whose most significant act is to repudiate Pétain and his expedient administration at Vichy, and take himself to London, clandestinely, where he throws in his lot with the more honourable and recalcitrant de Gaulle. The year in which these events take place is 1940, and we’re nearly half-way through the novel when this climactic moment arrives. What we have, at one level, is a family saga, and this necessitates a chronological approach to Bertrand’s experiences: indeed, the story begins in 1890, some years before his birth, when his mother and the mother of his future wife Madeleine Bonnet are a couple of convent school girls.

Open that window, Miss Menzies

Patricia Craig, 7 August 1986

The epigraphs of P.D. James (now that she has taken to using them) are important. ‘There’s this to say for blood and breath,’ runs the latest one, from A.E. Housman: ‘They give a man a taste for death.’ Are we being directed to hold in mind those other lines of Housman’s?

Green Martyrs

Patricia Craig, 24 July 1986

Each of these books – two anthologies and a critical study – is notable for its exclusions, among other things; each takes a strong line over questions of definition and evaluation; and each contains much to applaud. Thomas Kinsella’s New Oxford Book goes right back to the beginning, to a rath in front of an oak wood singled out for comment by some anonymous poet of the sixth century, and cherished as a survival from an even more distant past, while the Faber book takes as its starting-point (as the blurb has it) the death of Yeats. The American publisher and critic Dillon Johnston plumps for Joyce, rather than Yeats, in his title: not on a whim, he tells us, but in acknowledgement of certain literary procedures sanctioned by Joyce, and afterwards available to poets, no less than prose-writers. The lofty tone perfected by Yeats didn’t do at all when it came to the bleakness and piecemeal quality of the post-Yeats world, so many poets found. Joyce’s more variable manner showed a way to take in every aspect of the new social conditions, and keep the end-result tricksy.’

Belfast Book

Patricia Craig, 5 June 1986

The first of these writers, M.S. Power, has a searing metaphor to describe the effect of Ireland on certain people, those native to it and others: nailed to the place, they end up as in a crucifixion. ‘You and I are a crucified breed,’ says one leading terrorist (half-way through his latest novel) to another. ‘Just set foot on the soil of Ireland and you’ll be crucified to it forever,’ thinks another Power character, an honourable English colonel (retired), recalling the words of a high-up republican, or – it may be – an RUC inspector. Ireland – or, to be specific, Northern Ireland – has these people in its deadly grip. Lonely the man without heroes is the second volume of Power’s projected trilogy entitled ‘Children of the North’. Out of the north – to reverse an old Gaelic saying – comes the utmost despair. The Power novels are set in Belfast, but a Belfast deprived of every feature that gives it its character. As in the ordinary thriller, it’s become the scene of opposing stratagems, nothing more. Such books contain no sense of life going on in the usual way, in the teeth of military and paramilitary activity. Some authors – Power and Maurice Leitch, for example – clearly have a symbolic design in excluding the social and domestic from their work. They mean to stress the balefulness of what’s been brought about, by isolating the deformation of life in the city. (Authors in pursuit of a cruder kind of drama tend to lumber their characters with sets of convictions, among other things, resembling the bag of swag borne about by a comic-strip burglar.) With this approach, though, what’s lost – along with certain refinements of characterisation – is the atmosphere in which violent measures are condoned and enacted.’


Patricia Craig, 17 April 1986

The first work of collaboration between Edith Oenone Somerville and her cousin Violet Martin (‘Martin Ross’) was a Buddh dictionary – ‘Buddh’ being the family word for members of the family, and the dictionary consisting of words peculiar to it. ‘Blaut’, for instance, in Buddh circles, meant ‘violently to express immoderate fury’. The insufficiency of ordinary English, when it came to strong feelings, caused a good deal of improvisation among the Somervilles and their family connections. A feeling for the comically expressive phrase, we learn from Gifford Lewis’s affectionate study, asserted itself early on in the literary cousins. They couldn’t have been better placed to gratify it, what with family loquacity, and with Irish servants and tradespeople expostulating idiomatically all around them. ‘Sure the hair’s droppin’ out o’ me head, and the skin rollin’ off the soles o’ me feet with the heart scald I get with her!’: that sort of thing. Readers of the R.M. stories gain a strong impression of lower-class Irish hyperbole. Edith Somerville carried around with her a notebook in which she jotted down any local extravagance of speech she overheard. (She also carried a sketchbook in which she drew, very efficiently, Irish huntsmen: the inelegant in pursuit of the inedible.)’


Patricia Craig, 6 March 1986

Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan (a well-named pair) have assembled the testimonies of a lot of naughty American nuns and ex-nuns who chafed under the restrictions of convent life. One restriction in particular galled them all: the embargo on sexual activity. Few nuns, it seems, are natural celibates. Fewer still are heterosexual. An attraction to girls and women propelled them in droves into convents all over America, and out again when they found their inclinations didn’t tally with the requirements of the Church. As in the schoolgirl stories of Angela Brazil – who innocently named one of her heroines Lesbia – many of the friendships described in Breaking silence ‘flamed to red heat’. Angela Brazil perhaps didn’t understand the implications of the ardour she evoked. Neither did another children’s author, Elsie Oxenham, take full cognisance of the impulse that carried her characters, cheery adolescents all, into one another’s bedrooms and beds. You aren’t, with the Oxenham stories, invited to attribute anything but cosiness to the set-piece cocoa-drinking session which typically takes place at midnight with a special friend. Nuns, too, gaily visit one another’s rooms ‘to chat and hug’, or crawl through the window of a dormitory in which some irresistible confrère is sleeping. Indeed, the world of postulants and novitiates is very like the world of school and bosom friendships c. 1930, with young nuns arranging assignations in the convent broom cupboard or tub room. Delectable silliness and excitements are there in plenty. But the knowing modern nuns of Breaking silence are fully aware of what they’re up to – and once their passions are aroused, there is really no holding them: ‘Grope and fumble just would not do.’’

Angela and the Beast

Patricia Craig, 5 December 1985

Angela Carter’s Black Venus is Baudelaire’s Creole mistress Jeanne Duval, whose hair the poet once likened to a sea of ebony, among other things; his enchantment and her disenchantment figure in the story, the first in an inspiriting new collection of eight by an inveterate scrutiniser of the whole romantic box of tricks. There’s Baudelaire’s voluptuous reverie, on the one hand – full of his chère indolente, le charme des soirs, with the astonishing hair – and, on the other, cross Jeanne, toughened by experience, poking with a stick at a smoky fire. Men and their fancies don’t count for much with this unimpressionable ex-cabaret dancer – un serpent qui danse, the poet said, using an image not highly regarded by the girl who knows perfectly well how snakes move. Nor is she willing to accept without comment the exotic heritage he foists on her – la langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique (all that) – knowing herself, in fact, to be completely déracinée. Hasn’t her family history been all but excised, with only a Creole grandmother, gabbling a broken dialect, to anchor her to a shady lineage? Carter – who’s created a bizarre déité or two of her own. notably Fevvers in Nights at the Circus – imagines the reality behind the narcotic lines, in which the poet goes overboard for the scents of tar and musk and coconut oil. Pungent odours indeed.’


Patricia Craig, 19 September 1985

‘But for Bunter the result might have been serious,’ says a character in the Magnet ‘India’ series of 1926, giving credit to the fat schoolboy blunderer whose tomfoolery – quite by accident – has saved the day. It’s a custom of Bunter’s to run headlong into things, with preposterously beneficial results for all concerned. David Hughes, in his latest novel, takes this trait and turns it on its head: the outcome of Bunter’s intervention in certain notable episodes of the 20th century is very serious indeed. By this account, Bunter is personally responsible for the arrest of Crippen and the sinking of the Titanic, not to mention the Somme debacle and consequent prolonging of the First World War. The throne of England is rocked because of Bunter. A fiery act of Bunter’s sparks off the General Strike. It’s Bunter’s tailor who runs up some subsequently notorious black shirts for Oswald Mosley and his followers. Churchill assumes power in 1940 at the behest of Bunter. Bunter is at the bottom of the Suez business. ‘The Waste Land’ is a patch of ground at the back of the Bunter residence. David Hughes even devises a comic genesis, involving Bunter, for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.’

Valorising Valentine Brown

Patricia Craig, 5 September 1985

In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word ‘Valorisation’ which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. ‘To enhance the price, value or status of by organised … action’ is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: ‘the literary critics’ valorisation of tradition’. This phrase occurs towards the end of W.J. McCormack’s dissection of Anglo-Irishness as a literary and historical concept, Ascendancy and Tradition. ‘Valorise’, indeed, is a verb much favoured in this book, along with others like ‘energise’ and ‘traumatise’. There’s a word that might be applied to this style of writing: unstylish. At one point we catch the author of Ascendancy and Tradition considering the way in which Joyce and Yeats ‘as a binary and mutually dependent cultural production confront the totality of history’. There the two unfortunate literary figures stand, symbiosis thrust upon them. At another moment, the history of Ireland is called ‘bifurcated’, which makes it sound like a pair of trousers. It is very provoking of W.J. McCormack to write in this benighted way. The less he has to say, the more fussy and fustian his manner becomes. On the poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, we get this:

Crusoe and Daughter

Patricia Craig, 20 June 1985

There is at present something of a fashion for novels reflecting other novels, ironically and obliquely (Peter Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London comes to mind, with Little Dorrit behind it; or even Flaubert’s Parrot, though biography, fiction and all inform that eccentric piece of writing). These, at best, are neither extensions nor offshoots, but playful and original tributes to the work that’s set them off. With Jane Gardam’s latest novel the background book, and enriching ingredient, is Robinson Crusoe. Mrs Gardam is not new to the practice. The Summer after the Funeral (1973) has a heroine (aged 16 – it’s ostensibly a children’s book) who feels an affinity between herself and Emily Brontë, to the point of thinking deeply about reincarnation. Wuthering Heights has left its mark indirectly on this novel. Crusoe’s Daughter, with its heroine Polly Flint metaphorically cast away, and not cast down by it, is rather more open about its literary appropriations.’

Exasperating Classics

Patricia Craig, 23 May 1985

Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Lost Boys’, in later life called Peter Pan ‘that terrible masterpiece’. Brigid Brophy, having reread Little Women and its sequels, dried her eyes and blown her nose, resolved that ‘the only honourable course was to come out into the open and admit that the dreadful books are masterpieces.’ She did it, though, ‘with some bad temper and hundreds of reservations’. It isn’t an uncommon reaction. These works, and many others, are among the exasperating classics of children’s literature which affect you at some level in the way the authors overtly intended, for all your rational revulsion or boredom or disapproval of the outworn ideologies they may sanction. The last dissenting emotion is perhaps the one most frequently aroused at present. Children’s stories from the past are continually disparaged for being insufficiently egalitarian, or wide-ranging, or whatever. Robert Leeson, in Reading and Righting, is struck by the failure of children’s authors before the 1960s to represent the working classes satisfactorily in their fiction. He claims a kind of ‘cultural invisibility’ overtook the proletariat, and traces this deplorable disappearance right back to the late 15th century and the start of printing. Along with the ancient folk tale, transmitted orally, went a proper respect, imaginatively expressed, for everyone’s social role. Then the powerful middle classes, into whose clutches the rudimentary book trade fell, proceeded to impose their own view of things on the developing literature.

Uncle Max

Patricia Craig, 20 December 1984

Like most biographers, Anthony Masters starts by announcing his subject’s date of birth; unlike most biographers, he gets it wrong. Charles Henry Maxwell Knight was born on 9 July 1900, not 4 September, under the sign of Cancer, not Virgo, however tempting it may be, for reasons which become clear in the course of the story, to assign him to the latter. Information about Maxwell Knight is pretty scanty and unreliable at most stages of his life, but a copy of his birth certificate may be obtained from the usual source, and was surely worth looking at; it is also more precise about Knight’s place of birth than Masters has chosen to be, specifying 199 Selhurst Road, South Norwood, Croydon, while he leaves it vaguely at Mitcham, Surrey.


Irish Extraction

17 April 1986

SIR: It strikes me that perhaps Nicolas Walter is making too much of the ancestry attributed to Major Yeates in the Irish R.M. stories (Letters, 5 June). For Irish, in this instance, I think we read Anglo-Irish, which isn’t quite the same thing – and whatever his nationality, Major Yeates is at a sufficient distance from the natives of Skebawn to find their antics bemusing: this is surely...


5 September 1985

SIR: In his book Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History, W.J. McCormack tells us – in a rather curious phrase – that Yeats ‘rewrites the terms upon which he would be interpreted’. (He also tells us that when he refers to Yeats he doesn’t mean the ‘biographical individual’, but ‘the summum of texts bearing his name’.) There’s...
Patricia Craig writes: ‘By the Mane of Aslan’, as Caspian said in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, here we go again. Can we say that, throughput the series, the Pevensies are on the way to heaven – ‘the real Narnia’, of which the shadow-Narnia is simply a foretaste, God and all – and leave it at that?

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