When you are nursing someone who has cancer one of the last things you want to hear is that a good friend of yours has just succumbed to the disease. I did dedicate this week’s Women’s Outlook show to Graham, but I feel like I should say more. So I am going to re-post a review from Emerald City (#113, January 2005) of the fabulous (and deeply feminist) The Limits of Enchantment. That’s partly because it is a great book, and partly because much of the subject matter is very appropriate for me right now.
The new Graham Joyce novel, The Limits of Enchantment, is to some extent a follow-on from The Facts of Life. In that book there is mention of how, in the middle of the 20th Century, professional midwives with years of experience but no professional qualifications were being hounded out of work by the new, official, government health service. In modern, technological Britain, old witch women were no longer to be allowed to practice their arts. Especially when those arts also included abortion advice. It was, after all, well known that young women who became pregnant outside wedlock were mentally disturbed and should be put in asylums, not given abortions.
So, enter old Mammy Cullen, resident wise woman of a small village near Leicester. Mammy has successfully delivered well over 100 babies, including some that looked quite dead on their arrival into this world. The women of the village mostly think she is wonderful. The men regard her with some suspicion but are cautious because it is known that whenever a girl comes to Mammy to get an abortion part of the price is the name of the man responsible. Mammy can’t write, but she has a very good memory.
The local authorities have already outlawed amateur midwifery. If Mammy is caught helping deliver a baby then she can be put in jail. But she doesn’t mind over much. She is old, and will doubtless not be long for this world. It is her adopted daughter, Fern, that is the problem. Fern certainly has the talent to be a good midwife. She has assisted at many births. And she has Sight. But she doesn’t altogether believe in the Old Ways. Her main interest in the Moon is that President Kennedy said he was going to send men there, not in its magical powers. Ah well, at least she isn’t going stupid over mop-topped pop stars and wearing mini skirts like the rest of the village girls.
I stared hard at these words on my notepad and I couldn’t see any extra value in them. Any at all. Vertex presentation? We say: head first. I counted the syllables. That’s three times as long to say the same thing. Why had I come to college to learn words that added no more than a lot of extra noise to the sum of my knowledge?
Unfortunately Mammy waits too long. An unfortunate incident in the village leaves her in hospital, an institution dominated by her enemies: doctors and freemasons. It is a prison from which Mammy will not escape. Fern is left to cope on her own. Her only allies are her worldly friend, Judith, the hippies who live on the farm up the road, and a village lad called Arthur whose main interest in Fern appears to be getting her into bed.
Compared to The Facts of Life, The Limits of Enchantment is a much less edgy book. It is hard to beat the Second World War for dramatic horror. But The Limits of Enchantment is rather more angry. There are times which it descends into situation comedy, which is very British of it, but for much of its length it rails against the injustice imposed on well-meaning, ordinary people by those in authority: the nobility, the medical establishment, social workers, the police and so on. In many ways it is a book that is just as applicable today, except you could use gays instead of independent women and Blacks or Muslims in place of pagans and hippies.
The hare told me that we had moved into the time of Man and that was not a good thing, even for men and women. It complained bitterly of the leverets killed in the blades of combine harvesters. It asked me if I knew how many combine harvesters there were in the country, and when I shook my head it specified an exact figure. The corn bleeds, it said pointedly, we bleed.
Gollancz clearly think a lot of this book. My review copy has the now famous Isabelle Allende blurb for The Facts of Life on the cover. On the back cover it proudly says, “The Limits of Enchantment will be submitted for the Booker Prize.” And you know I think it might get somewhere. To start with Graham Joyce is a wonderful author and this is a very readable and entertaining book. Also it doesn’t read like a fantasy. Most of the “magic” that happens can be rationalized if you work hard enough at it and are pig-headed enough to not want any of it to be “true”.
But it is fantasy nonetheless. Like The Lord of the Rings it is an elegy for a lost time in which life was simpler and closer to nature than it is now. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, Joyce accepts that time moves on, and that magic can be found in other ways and in other places. Fern does not fade and go into the West. She picks herself up, adapts, and gets on with doing what needs to be done. In her own way she will become part of the nascent Feminist movement. And when she is old like Mammy she will doubtless shake her head at Grrl Power and wonder what the youth of today is coming to. But along the way the Moon will have traveled with her, for all that it has been trampled on by male feet. And while much of the Green and Pleasant Land has been overrun by the pressures of over-population, there are still places where the hares box in the dawn light of March. The Goddess is not dead yet, and Graham Joyce is doing his bit to keep Her memory alive.