Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo), Small Island
Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) greets Hortense (Naomie Harris), Small Island
Dear friends and readers,
A blog on this marvelous, sweeping and intimately moving novel, and its effective film adaptation. The hype is deserved even if both book & film have flaws. The central thrust of this paradoxically finally optimistic book: coming to terms with a false imposed identity and creating a new one out of the shards of what you can’t escape (it’s part of you and the people around you will not let you escape) and turning back to old memories, reworking the pain of these to be brought forward as part of your recreated self:
A few days ago I got my schedule for teaching this coming spring and got back to working on Chapter 5 of my book project, now called “A Place of Refuge: The Sense and Sensibility movies.” My need to watch a mini-series or film adaptation of a novel by John Alexander (as the director of the 2008 S&S) had led me to read Andrea Levy’s rightly award-winning (Whitbread & Orange Prizes!), Small Island, as prologue to watching the movie (directed by Alexander, written by Paula Milne and produced by Joanna Anderson/Vicky Licorish). Well it seemed perfect for my 302 Humanities class and I plunged in. By the time I reached the close of both (book and movie) I had been absorbed, moved, and experienced something new and yet as old to me as experiences I had when I was five and in first grade and felt real admiration for the art of both.
The story is not told in chronological order but rather weaves back and forth between 1948 when (in the movie especially) events come to a crashing dramatic crisis and “time before” from the childhood of Hortense and Michael Roberts in Jamaica (the Carribean), to that of Queenie on a pig farm in rural UK (1930s) to their experiences of growing up, in the case of Hortense and Michael and a third Jamaican protagonist, Gilbert Joseph, emigrating to the UK, and in the case of Queenie and Bernard Bligh, working to lower middle class, marrying, enduring and experiencing WW2 and surviving on afterward. We experience Bernard’s war in India, and move back in time to experience how his father, Arthur, was traumatized permanently by his experience of WW1 in Europe; we get glimpses of Gilbert’s experience of war as a soldier-driver in the UK and Michael as an black officer of the RAF. I’ve ironed things out to group them, but in the book we move back and forth to juxtapose events thematically and for irony. A full plot-design and story summary brings into play the history and cultural worlds in these two islands (Jamaica and England are both small islands) especially as experienced along class, race, and gender fault-lines.
The movie moves forward more or less from the time Hortense is young and decides she wants to act on her dreams of working in a high position “as a teacher” in “the Mother Country,” England, with occasional flashbacks taking us back into the past and into the minds of the characters remembering specific crucial incidents in their lives.
At first I had trouble getting into the book. It has this deliberately “difficult” (complicated, complex organization (the author has prizes like the Booker in mind where such organizations retelling the pasts of different subjectivities are common): we are given individual character’s soliloquies which are thrust at us, and we are asked to pick up everything about each as we go. As I know little about Jamaica or the experience of black people in London in the 1940s (the two places events occur at thus far), it was a struggle.
It felt weak at first. I could see it belonged to the category of written, successfully marketed, and be-prized books that (for example) in A Critical Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, James English calls Tropicalizing-Colonialist-UK where (as James English says) the miseries and wretched conditions of the marginalized world (“The empire”) are presented using the modes and outlooks of the hegemonic one (in English, the Anglo). Such stories seems to critique the powerful and high ranked, and yet feed off it to make money and flatter the person reading them. English asks if such books are not exploitable globally marketable (high prestige) airport literature where the relatively well-placed, some rich, some well educated (booksellers, film people) and exploit the periphery using fashionable post-colonialist attitudes.
As I carried on though the book gripped me completely and won over my doubts for the most part. It picked up and became strong when in Jamaica our heroine, Hortense (illegitimate and living with an uncle and aunt) has to watch her male cousin, Michael, go to school and she doesn’t.
Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris)
Michael Roberts (Ashley Walters).
This is a vividly, intensely experienced injustice in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, which I read with a sophomore level literature class three terms ago. Dangarembga opens with how her heroines hated her brother and is glad he has died, for now she may have a chance to go to school as her mother and father have no son. Levy’s is a less startling variant on this; it’s softened by the two being cousins, not brother and sister, and Hortense falling in love with Michael, and getting to go to a teacher’s school without his having to die for her to get a place. She then hopes to rise with him as his wife. All the black characters are seen to have advancement as a continual conscious motivation from a very young age.
A second turn came and deeper engagement when Gilbert Joseph, the young black Jamaican man who seems our secondary hero, but begins to seem our primary one finds himself for the first time in England. World War Twp has begun, and he has volunteered to “fight” for the “Mother country,” whose history, norms, ideals have informed his education from his youngest years so that he learned in school far more about English (not British, but specifically) English ways than he did about the history of the country he was brought up in, much less the western hemisphere than a tiny part of an island in a northern Archipelago. Gilbert hopes to learn a trade, a craft as an airman in the RAF.
Gilbert in the UK (David Oyelowo)
He discovers he will not be considered for any position higher than a driver. Just as bad, his dream of this beautiful idyllic fine society is shattered because the place is shabby, poor, cold, a “squalid shambles” with of cold, lousy tasting food (everything boiled), no heat,, with himself treated as utterly inferior, an outsider. I was deeply moved by the scene where he first approaches this island because I experienced this myself when coming to England by boat at age 21 and seeing the white cliffs of Dover (to be followed by working class Leeds in October). Out of my own reading, I made myself an identity that was Anglophilic, and while the first time I came I felt this intense uplift and loved all I saw (London, 1968) and was treated at least as well as anyone else, it was within a week or so a profoundly disillusioning experience. I saw as white from the get-go the rigid class system which made a huge majority of people ill-educated; class in the UK replaced race in the US. As I did in this novel Gilbert Joseph moves from dream, to realization of the actual (to him especially) cruel system, to dislike (very intense at first), and then gradually resignation because analogously it is just like the country one comes from, and then to acceptance (seeing social justice far more accommodating and far more flexible for people who don’t fit a “norm”), to even — for me in Leeds and Yorkshire, love and for Gilbert and Hortense Joseph at the close of the novel in Finsley Park hope and identification of a new sort.
The book has six principals: three blacks, Hortense and Michael Roberts and three whites, Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Arthur, Bernard’s shell-shocked father who lives with Bernard, Robert.
With respect to the blacks, the book is also (as I wrote) about being a girl in a traditional society, and each of the paradigms that Hortense goes through in school have their parallel in Nervous Conditions, with this difference. Levy is less personally angry than Dangarembga (that’s a problem in the book) but more aware of theoretical issues and shapes her fiction to have wider application — to white women (especially working and lower middle class) say, and to all traditional women. It does give a certain “making book” quality to her book, a factitious quality, but I could see (not meaning to put this utterly cynically but rather pragmatically) how this book would be perfect to assign in a classroom. Like many of the Booker Prize books it lends itself to analysis which includes the typical middle class person and is not hard to analyse but has the kinds of structures that make for papers.
For example, again and again Hortense in Jamaica and then Gilbert in the UK go through job and application interviews. Gilbert once he returns to the UK after the war is over and he discovers he can get just nowhere in Jamaica, would have ended a poor subsidence marginal semi-working hanger-on, an attempt to get a better position. He can only rise in a developed country, but there he’s a man whose credentials and abilities are utterly ignored. What happens is what matters is, who was your father? Were you legitimate? Hortense is thus rejected for better positions as a teacher in Jamaica repeatedly and her dream of getting into the white school as a teacher utterly crushed. What is your race? your ethnic identity? are you one of us? So Gilbert dreams of being educated to be a pilot and learning about aerospace. Is he kidding? he ends up a driver. (This happened to me in my life several times: the first in in my junior year in high school. I wrote a composition which I saw several teachers knew was excellent but it was rejected along the lines because I was not in the AP class, not in the honors English, not going at that point to college, and clearly working class without the manners and ability to present myself the other girls had. What a lesson that taught me. I’ve never forgotten it. You don’t have to be black to learn it, just working or lower middle class.)
A particularly moving moment comes early in the book with the death of Michael Roberts — or so we think. A telegram written in euphemistic language arrives. The euphemisms used to describe his death are at not at first understood by the naive parents. The authorities don’t know for sure and don’t want the parents to know how he died and that he was in fact thrown away.
The book obviously does not neglect white people either, the real colonist types Trollope likes to present, fringe people in the UK who come over to the colonies try to rise about those who are exploited as beneath them. We have Mr and Mrs Ryder, the pair who run a Jane Eyre like school. He’s adulterous with many women: we are shown how women get along everywhere by selling sex. She’s adulterous with Michael Roberts.
We meet Queenie, a girl in a laborer’s family, brought up a farm girl and given an opportunity to educate herself minimally for office work when her Aunt Dorothy invites her to come to London to learn manner, how to speak (dialect is class-inflected), how to dress, type, and meet young men. Before Queenie can find a place for herself, her aunt dies, and she is threatened by her mother (in effect) with returning to the farm. She has met but not loved a shy, un-aggressive bank clerk, Bernard Bligh; he has tried to ask her to marry him, and she was not eager. But under pressure she makes the pragmatic choice.
In the film Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) steps forward to say that Queenie (Ruth Wilson) has accepted him when her mother (Mary Jo Randle) says she has no way of supporting herself in London
Bernard is driven to enlist out of shame and a sense that Queenie does not admire or love or even need him. The marriage is not simply a desperate choice (like Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) one as the male here is while shown with all his flaws (racist through and through, narrow, dull) is also sympathized with. When he goes off on his bus, Queenie shuts the door and does not watch Bernard to the last moment.
The scene has a parallel in film and book when much later after the war and Bernard has not come home, Michael Roberts turns up for a second time (no he was not killed), becomes Queenie’s lover for a weekend but as he has no love for her beyond that walks out of her life off to Canada, without turning round. She would have gone with him but is afraid to ask if she can lest he give her an answer which reveals his indifference to her.
Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Michael (Ashley Walters) during the weekend
So the book reaches out and joins the unprivileged in both small islands.
Two powerful scenes may stand for how the black and white stories are woven together. Gilbert Joseph comes to live in Queenie’s house as one of three servicemen looking for a place to stay (this while Bernard has gone off to war). Gilbert takes Queenie to a teashop where some American white soldiers; they see him and immediately want to destroy him. In terror, he has to get out of there and yet not show the fear. He and Queenie go out in the street and meet up with Bernard’s father, Arthur (a barrier to these men) and then decide to go into a moviehouse (partly Gilbert seeking safety).
Gilbert and Queenie with Arthur (Karl Johnson) in the film
Gilbert is about to sit downstairs with Queenie (and perhaps Arthur) when an usher comes over to tell him he must sit upstairs. The mayhem that follows is intensely persuasive: as many whites are for him sitting there (British people) as there are American whites incensed at him. We see how the usher and manager just don’t want trouble, how the vast majority of those sitting just wish all would sit and watch the movie. A riot ensues in which Queenie’s father-in-law is killed because a American military white type suddenly produces a gun.
The film offers a shorter version of the scene, one which occurs wholly in the street: Gilbert (David Oyelowo) is trying to reach and to help Arthur who he has become fond of (Arthur is a good card-player, in fact cheats)
We see the intense racism of Americans against the unthinking not institutionalized “color” bar of the UK.
Both white and black women make pragmatic marriages. When Gilbert comes homes to Jamaica, he just has no chance for anything; not considered for any role, cannot make even a subsidence living. Hortense has learned how limited her chances are too, so she offers to pay for his return (she has worked for years in a low-paying job putting away some of her pay each week), of he will marry her first and then send for her afterward. She says she wants to marry him as it does not do for a “young lady” to travel and live with a man without being married to him. She is utterly conventional in her aping of respectable ways.
The deal is about to be struck (Celia [Nikki Amuka-Bird] Hortense’s friend who does not get to go as she is not allowed by Gilbert to desert her dependent mother
He cannot find a decent place to stay at first, and when he finally does find a job as a postman, he remembers Queenie’s address, seeks her out and as she is a rare non-prejudiced person who needs lodgers very badly, she rejoices to see him
Greeting one another
The book does not neglect showing how Queenie experiences the war: as bombing. How she works as a government aid whose business it is to supposedly help traumatized, homeless, maimed and bombed out people. She is ever giving them super-complicated forms and send them off to officials we are to realize will not exactly greet them with the open arms Queenie displays to Gilbert
What often bothers me about some post-colonial or third-world novels is a kind of prejudice is set up against the whites — and it might seem so in this book by my above paragraphs. (And this is true of Jumpha Lahiri’s first volume of stories, Interpreters of Maladies and her Namesake where the working class whites are stigmatized, for example, by their drinking habits and the upper class whites caricatures of New Yorker imagined readers.) Not so with Levy: we get an inside-the-white-skin moving account of Queenie Bligh’s growing up working class, her marriage to Bernard (lower middle) , her experience of the war, of being deserted by him afterward, which persuades me if Levy didn’t grow up in the UK she has a strong empathetic imagination.
Another aspect of this book which makes it at once more acceptable for a woman’s novel (and thus be-prized) and seems one by a man — and a wee bit of a problem to set as a text for students — is its vast sweep. Why? It makes the book longer. Atwood’s Lady Oracle is under 300 pages, and Lahiri’s Namesake and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto) not much more. J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is well under 125. Anyone who teaches will tell you how increasingly hard it is to get students to get a book of 400 plus pages. (All these gentle reader are books I can and will assign beyond Small Island if I got through with this to my 302 in Humanities students.)
It does make the novel more impressive; there is a long moving section of a white working to lower middle class hero, Bernard’s, time fighting in India. What is striking here is how Levy uses the subjective soliloquy style narrative which moves back and forth in time (common in Booker Prize books) for varied purposes. She captures the early history of Bernard’s father (who is suddenly killed in the race riot outside the movie house I described yesterday) so that we learn to love this man, a broken person from WW1 (and thus get some of this). She also gives us an incident where our conventional hero who has thus far refused to mutiny, refused to strike, refused to do anything rebellious suddenly finds himself pressured and bullied to lie about the death of one of his close friends, to claim the man died as one of a series of strikers in order to fulfill the agenda of the officer (promotion). When he refuses, he is thrown in jail himself, court martialed. I had not thought of this: how officers and powerful people would pressure lower people not just to lie about their mistakes, but lie about others to use them — just as much in death as anywhere else. Yes this is an anti-war, anti-colonialist novel.
Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) coming home at last
He feels how Queenie is shattered and also that she does not want him. She does not go to bed with him. She rightly is indignant that he questions her decisions to take in blacks when he has not been home for 2 years, was thought to have deserted her. He thinks her spirit now weakened considerably by the terrible bombing and loss of her father-in-law — his father. What he does not know is she is now pregnant by Michael Roberts.
The novel does cheat. It has a magical providential patterning using Michael Roberts. What is an accepted providential nature of novels allows Queenie to meet up with Hortense’s cousin, Michael Roberts, the young black man who was sent to school when Hortense wasn’t, and then declared missing believed killed in the white man’s war in the RAF; Queenie naturally has a one night affair with him. There is a Lawrentian undercurrent here: Michael is the sexy man of the novel.
It’s on Michael’s second weekend-long tryst with Queenie after the war is over (and Bernard has not returned) that she became pregnant. He then (as I wrote) went walking off to Canada.
Without giving the whole ending away (not quite predictable), I have to say the white women and white couple (Queenie Bligh and Bernard Bligh) are the big losers in this novel. The young black couple (Gilbert Joseph and Hortense Roberts) are giving the providentially happy use of an inheritance which a black friend of Gilbert’s is willing to share with him (which of course calls upon their work ethic). The young black couple are going to go live in a much nicer house in Finsley Park whose income they will share in; Queenie may yet get a certificate to teach English in the UK. They are going to do all right. The white male comes back blasted and nervous and our white heroine, a strong presence throughout the book ends up with him and gives up what means a tremendous amount to her — her baby to the black couple, not because she doesn’t love it but because she loves it very much and knows she will not be permitted to bring it up without terrific prejudice thrown at it such that it will grow up twisted and angry. She also give Bernard a place that he can feel comfortable in by simply staying with him.
There’s a sort of hidden revenge going on here. I said I often did see an animus against working class whites in books by Afro- people, sometimes spiteful and through caricature (Jhumpa Lahiri); this was not at all the way in this novel until the very last scene, which I suspect could also be attacked at (not meaning to but) reinforcing racial separation (against say adoption of black childen by whites or any ethnic/racial child of one haplogroup by parents of another haplogroup).
I did cry as I felt intensely for Queenie — our white working class heroine.
I watched the mini-series immediately after reading the book and thus the inevitable comparative temptation was to find the film wanting in comparison with the novel. As I went on I recognized the film had its own themes, or (to put it another way) elaborated the themes of the book with a different emphasis. The idyllic dream of England found in the book and slowly torn down to a minimal expectation of a more comfortable modern life, one in the book analogous to and made also to stand for the dream of being promoted, advanced, having a career of dignity and fulfillment is emphasized and shapes the choices, plot-design and especially the close. Most of the characters are thwarted at almost every turn until near the end Gilbert and Hortense get the opportunity to move into the house of Hortense’s dreams: it may be run down, but we can see it has potential. I say especially the close, for the most moving characters in the film (perhaps paradoxically) is Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and she is left crying on her stoop, her weak husband’s arms around her as Gilbert and Hortense drive with baby Michael (her name for her baby) away.
One of the reviews I read, this one by Laura Albritten, Harvard Review, Nov 29, 2005, pp 237-39, argued that Queenie is the most admirable character but for Gilbert Joseph, and as hardest and permanently hit, the most memorable.
All four protagonists, the black young man and woman and the white young man and women are thrown away by their society at some point, the blacks more ruthlessly than the whites, but just as surely. They are given little opportunity to use their talents, education, gifts. The only one who might fulfill hers is Hortense at the close but it’s chancy. In the logic of popular (naive) art, it’s somehow fitting that Hortense, the most insistent on her self-image and pride is the person who may indeed fulfill her dream:
Hortense putting her nose up at Queenie’s unnecessary but well-meant explanations of what is sold in a given shop
I felt some of the scenes in my bones as someone who got a Ph.d. and had no chance to become a tenured type, as someone who came to the UK with this dream of the place and saw the reality. Actually I was struck by how in the end the black characters stay in the UK and accept and even like it; I would have stayed too had my parents not offered Jim and I a real step-up of money and I gain a position in university in NYC and Jim get so much better a job. This is the distance between the US in the 1970s (a place where jobs and advancement were possible for lower middle in the 1970s) and Jamaica (a place where this was not possible in the 1940s).
My feeling is this theme of being shut out, a class based fault-line for whites, resonated with the viewers of this film too. The scenes of someone with a good education (Hortense) laughed at, of someone who aspires to one (Gilbert Joseph) scorned and humiliated, who gradually learns to live with his or her place were among the strengths of this (optimistic finally be it said) film:
Hortense and Gilbert on a park bench contemplating Buckingham Palace.
A small side show was the two older characters who are nervous wrecks and supported by their families. Bernard’s father is an emotional cripple from WW1 and he is kept and his death in a race riot (considerably toned down) as devastating as in the book. The film adds a woman who is equally in need of support, Celia’s mother whose father deserted her years before and who I described above. Celia does not get to leave the Carribbean because Gilbert Joseph will not hear of her leaving her mother to go with him; Queenie is faithful to the end to her father-in-law.
The flaws are (to someone who did no more than read the book and watch the film for entertainment) departures from an already compromised text: The opening gets rid of the brother-sister (Michael versus Hortense Roberts) rivalry which is so powerful at first in the book and collapses it immediately into a romance between the two cousins (actually they are cousins) which the novel (to be fair) eventually does too. They make the white teacher in the Carribean, Mrs Ryder, simply a lover of Michael Roberts, who since he becomes Queenie’s lover too, begins to be a portrait of a philandering cold male by the end. This gets rid of the reality of promiscuity we see in Mr Ryder (who is not having an affair with anyone in the film) and Mrs Ryder and turns the thing into lurid romance. Hortense’s dislike then becomes “the young girl who has a lot to learn” (and her lesson is the Lawrentian I’ve been noticing from Turn of the Screw and Atonement that the girl must accept male sexuality in full power because healthy passionate (&c) women do, like Mrs Ryder and Queenie (later in the book) and in the Atonement, Cecilia.
Albeit straight from the book, Michael Robert’s multi-function in all three women’s lives is improbable — it does connect to the male who is presented as glamorous and sexy because he’s aloof. He does walk off into the sunset so to speak — to Canada, never to be seen by any of the characters again we are to suppose. So he can stand for the male who deserts.
Michael as false comforter
A young minor black woman in the film, Celia, is not able to escape Jamaica because her mother’s mind has become unhinged and she needs her daughter since her husband deserted her. Bernard, Queenie’s husband, in effect deserts her (for 2 years after the war from depression, fear, anxiety, an idea he has syphilis), but ironically when he comes back, she is not elated to see him, he only makes trouble for her as she’s become independent and managed on her own after all. The sad ending is partly the result of Bernard being there; Queenie would maybe not have made the decision she did had she not had a racist white male husband to live with.
On the other hand, as in so many films recently, we again have – and there is not one iota of warrant for this in the text — these older women continually counseling the young girl to compromise, the accept the male fate has offered her (Hortense’s aunt, supervisor, Queenie’s aunt and mother). The tone is not as bitter or vile as in Lost in Austen, but the reiteration is striking — especially when there’s nothing like this in the book.
We have a narrator but he is male — this is a book by a woman. I did say Levy had been clever enough to combine a male type novel with a female but substituting a male voice erases the mark of this as a novel by a woman. Yet in the interests of time and expense, the war sections are cut severely so the novel is about here and now and domestic romance primarily. This is loss even if it was to save money and time.
The film-makers also considerably soften the racism — they were afraid to show the full extent of suffering of blacks lest they lose their white BBC audience I suppose. They make Queenie’s husband much less racist than he is in the book. In the book his behavior is both real and painful to watch. Our black hero, Gilbert Joseph, has far worse experiences in the book when he comes to the UK both during the way (the death of Arthur is far more ravaging and poignant) and is bitterer in the book.
But as I’ve shown, much is left that is of individual and unusual value.
Hortense arriving (the opening of the film)
They did keep the book’s and allusion to Gone with the Wind, and it worked so fittingly: when Queenie comes to have her baby with Hortense in the room, Queenie says we are Scarlett and Prissy (you see the type) all over again, Hortense denies this stoutly (getting the allusion) and we can see this archetypal scene has undergone a sea change: Queenie is not a queen, she’s having an illegitimate baby through adultery and Hortense is an educated young woman, not a slave.
An irony about the depiction of racism in recent BBC films: I notice the same small group of black actors recur in many of these films. Three of the principles here; David Oyelowo (Gilbert Joseph), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Celia), Ashley Walters (Michael Roberts) I’ve seen repeatedly in star roles in films where blacks are wanted (Five Days for example) so not that many blacks are being promoted and advanced in quality British TV. I did love Ruth Wilson (Queenie), recently in Jane Eyre: bringing Jane Eyre together with Queenie Bligh shows the folk typology at the heart of this film. Naomi Harris (Hortense) I’ve not seen before, the new ingenue princess, we are to see her as prissy, and that is a good thing as her self-esteem and demand for respect does help her — as it might not in life. Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Bernard was the rapist in Atonement and has gone on to be a modernized Sherlock Holmes so his typology is complicated, here extends his range:
Need I say all are brilliant actors in the modern British quality TV tradition, Karl Johnson as Arthur.
And I saw many film techniques of John Alexander which he uses in his, Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic’s 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility (use of romantic surging music, of nostalgic kinds of blurs, of landscapes); nothing as original as shaped by Davies’s montage poetry-drenched text, but the films definitely have the same director. There are memory montages for Queenie remembering Michael (this is typical modern technique, found in 1996 Meridian Emma to 2009 Lost in Austen. The real love affair in the book is that of Queenie and Michael, and he deserts her, and she gives up his child. This is a film which shows us the risks and limits of romance in our world in so many areas of life on so many levels.
Yes finally it’s a woman’s book and a woman’s movie.
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