Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The plot of The Juniper Tree is, at first, deceptively simple. Narrated in a matter-of-fact, emotionally detached tone, one would never guess the hardships and suffering that are yet to come in this story. Bella Winter escapes her cruel and harsh mother by moving in with a boyfriend who has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards her. Bella’s face is permanently scared in an car accident which her boyfriend, Stephen, causes. When their relationship finally dissolves, Bella moves on from Stephen but finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with a black man she never sees again.

But Bella is never bitter or harsh, she accepts her life and loves her daughter and even finds happiness by working in an antique shop. Bella’s daughter, Tommy, thrives on Bella’s love despite the fact that many people, including her own mother, are judgmental about her biracial daughter. Comyns’s depiction of what it is like for a single mother and her innocent daughter to suffer from racism in 20th century Britain is true to life and heartbreaking. I was captivated by Bella’s simple yet happy outlook as she doesn’t view her scar, her daughter or her occupation as obstacles to her contentment. But Comyns draws the reader into the tragedy that will eventually occur in brilliantly subtle ways.

When Bella meets Bernard and Gertrude Forbes, a wealthy couple who take Bella and Tommy under their wing, hints of tragedy start to appear. Although she spends weekends at the Forbes’s well-appointed home and garden and becomes a integral part of their family by helping them with domestic chores, Bella still retains her freedom and cherishes her antique shop and her own space. Bernard, in particular, seems patronizing towards Bella and views her as his pet project. His attempts to educate her about art, music and languages reminded me a bit of Ovid’s Pygmalion myth.

Tragedy strikes in the story when Bella, against her better judgment, gives up her freedom. She thinks she is making decisions to enhance her daughter’s education and future, but she knows that sacrificing her own, simple joys, is a bad decision. This book is equally as important and relevant in the 21st century as a commentary about women, social roles, and the balance that mothers and wives have to make between the comfort and safety of their families and their own individual needs. It’s something I struggle with personally every day.

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Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature