#BookReview Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant

Latchkey LadiesAbout the Book

Maquita Gilroy is a Government clerk with a lively sense of self-preservation.

Anne Carey is drifting between jobs, bored of her fiancé, and longing for something to give her life meaning. Then she meets Philip Dampier, a married man whose plays she admires.

Petunia Garry, a beautiful teenage chorus girl with no background and dubious morals, is swept up by an idealistic soldier, who is determined to mould her into what he wants his wife to be.

Gertrude Denby, an Admiral’s daughter and an endlessly patient companion to an irritating employer, is so very tired of living out her life in hired rooms.

These latchkey ladies live alone or in shared rooms in London at the end of the First World War. They are determined to use their new freedoms, but they tread a fine between independence and disaster.

Format: Paperback (302 pages)      Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 15th March 2022 Genre: Modern Classics

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My Review

Latchkey Ladies, first published in 1921, is the latest title in Handheld Press’s Handheld Classic series. It has a fascinating introduction by Sarah LeFanu.

Although the latchkey ladies of the title may have ‘a room of their own’, they do not own that room and, although they may be living an independent life that is likely out of necessity rather than choice. Furthermore there remain constraints on what they can do or can be seen to do.  Some of the characters, namely Maquita Gilroy and, in a more extreme fashion, Petunia Garry, push at these boundaries. Although other characters flit in and out of the book, Anne Carey’s story is the main focus of the book.

When first introduced to the reader, Anne is at ‘breaking point without knowing it’. She’s working long hours in a role she regards as ‘trivial and silly to a degree’ (there are echoes of the Circumlocution Office of Dickens’s Little Dorrit in the tasks her department carries out). Food is scarce or unnutritious and there is anxiety about the progress of the war. The atmosphere of wartime London is skilfully evoked. ‘The darkness of the street, the lamps few and dimmed by green paint… the taxis with their blurred lights, the cavernous, lumbering drays and unlit buses were vehicles of mystery.’  Indeed, one episode in the book (in the chapter entitled ‘Searchlights’) depicting a German bombing raid on London is chillingly reminiscent of scenes we are witnessing currently on the nightly news. ‘There was nothing to be done but sit through it, and in a moment it seemed the faint distant booming gathered force as the nearer guns came into action, and the night was filled with a continuous crash of fire that shook the street and made windows and tables rattle.’

I’ll freely admit that I found Anne difficult to like at times possibly because the author gives us such a unflinching insight into her seemingly perpetual mental turmoil and frequent periods of low mood. Anne finds it difficult to decide what she really wants – security or ‘excitement’ – often shifting from one position to another and back again.  I really found it difficult to forgive her treatment of her fiancé, Thomas, which if not exactly cruel comes pretty close to it.  However, there were things I admired about her such as her occasional bursts of defiance and the affection she shows for her pupils when she takes up a position at her aunt’s school. The pen portraits of the pupils are quite charming, especially in the chapter ‘Poetry Day’.

Although at times Anne demonstrates a zest for life, she seems overwhelmed by the conviction that this will entail testing herself. ‘Life called to her. She had unending curiosity about it. She wanted to know she could stand it, the road in front’. In the end, she is rather carried along by events, displaying a degree of naivety about the likely consequences of her actions.

Latchkey Ladies encompasses the light-hearted, the serious and the tragic. Moments of humour include a scene in which visiting Dampier’s home, his youngest son approaches Anne with his book of Bible stories and asks, ‘Was Jesus Mr, Mrs or Miss?’  I also liked the acerbic, rather dismissive comments about authors given to Philip Dampier to express. ‘They were an egotistic, tiresome breed… They either told you carefully rehearsed impromptu stories that were good enough, or else they sat in jealous silence afraid of losing money or reputation by giving away an idea or a phrase.’  The tragic moments are exemplified by Miss Denby, whose rather fleeting appearance ends sadly, and the event that occurs near the end of the book. I found this rather cruel, as if Anne must be punished for what had gone before. I really did hope that she eventually took the tentative hand of friendship offered to her in the closing chapter.

Latchkey Ladies is an interesting look into the lives of single women in the early part of the last century and the opportunities and challenges they faced, written with style and a dash of wit.

I received a review copy courtesy of Handheld Press.

In three words: Wry, perceptive, stimulating

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Marjorie Grant CookAbout the Author

Latchkey Ladies (1921) was the first novel by the Canadian author Marjorie Grant Cook (1882-1965), and is drawn from her life in London as a single working woman.

She was a prolific and influential reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and published seven novels.

She was close friends with Rose Macaulay, whose own secret affair with a married man may have provided the background for this novel.

#BookReview The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta #1976Club

The Bride PriceAbout the Book

Aku-nna, the Ibo heroine, is thirteen when her father dies, and the city life she has always known ends abruptly. She has to return with her young brother and mother to their home village where, according to tribal custom, they are “inherited” by her father’s brother. For the year or two that remain before she will be married, Aku-nna is grudgingly allowed to continue her schooling, but only because her ambitious uncle realises that an educated girl will fetch a higher bride price – the money a man’s family must pay to the family of his prospective wife.

By the time Aku-nna is fifteen, she has fallen in love – but in circumstances that threaten deep-rooted social, sexual and religious taboos of the community. Before long, alarming things begin to happen, and Aku-nna finds that she is expected to submit to humiliating physical and mental assaults.

Escape might be the answer, but how she can escape her fear of the fate that, even today, is said to await every girl whose bride price is not paid?

Format: Hardcover (168 pages)      Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 1st January 1976 Genre: Modern Classics

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My Review

The 1976 ClubThe Bride Price was the book I chose to read for the 1976 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. You can check out the reviews of all the other book bloggers taking part – and post a link to your own review – here.

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Buchi Emecheta before searching for books published in 1976 but I’ve now discovered a writer whose back catalogue I’m interested to explore further. The Bride Price is set in Nigeria just before it gained independence in 1960. The story of Aku-nna highlights both the inferior position of woman at that time and the conflict between traditional African values and the influence of modern Europe.

When Aku-nna’s father dies, she and her mother and brother are ‘inherited’ by her father’s brother, since it is unthinkable for a woman to be the head of a family. ‘When you have lost your father, you have lost your parents. Your mother is only a woman, and women are supposed to be boneless. A fatherless family is a family without a head, a family without shelter, a family without parents, in fact a non-existing family. Such traditions do not change very much.’ The book describes in vivid detail the traditional mourning rites and ritual demonstrations of grief that follow a death.

It is difficult for most of us today to imagine a society in which women were regarded as little more than assets to be sold or purchased, and where ‘evening visits’ by young men that might involve touching young girls of the household in an intimate way were condoned. ‘In Ibuza, every young man was entitled to his fun. The blame usually went to the girls.‘ Or that young girls could expect to be married as young as fifteen or as soon as they began menstruating, often leading to death in childbirth. 

When her uncle, whom she is now expected to regard as her father, learns of Aku-nna’s relationship with Chike, a teacher at her school, he intervenes in the most extreme way to try to prevent it. Not only does he wish to extract the maximum bride price because of Aku-nna’s educational achievements but he is determined she should not marry a man who is descended from slaves.  Sadly, her mother, now her uncle’s fourth wife, does nothing to protect Aku-nna, despite the fact Chike has been supporting them financially.

The intensity of Aku-nna’s and Chike’s love for each other forces Aku-nna to choose between following her heart or adhering to the traditions of her people, including the belief that a woman whose bride price is unpaid will not only bring shame upon her family but death. The events that follow Aku-nna’s decision include periods of joy but they prove to be shortlived resulting in intensely moving scenes at the end of the book.

In three words: Poignant, thought-provoking, immersive

Try something similar: Wake Me When I’m Gone by Odafe Atogun

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Buchi EmechetaAbout the Author

Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta was born to Ibo parents in Lagos on 21 July 1944. She moved to Britain in 1960, where she worked as a librarian and became a student at London University in 1970, reading Sociology. She worked as a community worker in Camden, North London, between 1976 and 1978. Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical In the Ditch, was published in 1972. It first appeared in a series of articles published in the New Statesman magazine, and, together with its sequel, Second Class Citizen (1974), provides a fictionalised portrait of a poor young Nigerian woman struggling to bring up her children in London. She began to write about the role of women in Nigerian society in The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), winner of the New Statesman Jock Campbell Award, and The Joys of Motherhood (1979), an account of women’s experiences bringing up children in the face of changing values in traditional Ibo society.

Her other novels include Destination Biafra (1982), set during the civil war in Nigeria; The Rape of Shavi (1983), an allegorical account of European colonisation in Africa; Gwendolen (1989), the story of a young West Indian girl living in London; and Kehinde (1994), about a middle-aged Nigerian wife and mother who returns to Nigeria after living in London for many years. Her final work of fiction, The New Tribe, was published in 2000.

Buchi Emecheta was also the author of several novels for children, including Nowhere to Play (1980) and The Moonlight Bride (1980). She published a volume of autobiography, Head Above Water, in 1986. Her television play, A Kind of Marriage, was first screened by the BBC in 1976. In 1983 she was selected as one of twenty ‘Best of Young British Writers’ by the Book Marketing Council. She lectured in the United States throughout 1979 as Visiting Professor at a number of universities and returned to Nigeria in 1980 as Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Professor of English at the University of Calabar.

She ran the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company with her son and was  a member of the Home Secretary’s Advisory Council on Race. She was a member of the Arts Council from 1982 to 1983, and was a regular contributor to the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. Buchi Emecheta died in 2017. (Bio/photo credit: British Library)