Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car

Sadly, I can't possibly capture how exquisitely fine F. Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See The Peepshow  is, though I'll put an excerpt from a late chapter here (spoiler warning!). I wept continuously for the final thirty pages or so of this book; what higher praise can I offer?

 But the thing is, I love that a book can do this--especially a book I'd never heard of before, that I picked up some months ago because it was in the Virago Modern Classics series, and then put aside in a stack of other unread books, largely forgotten until I was looking for something new to read. That such an accidental book, originally published in 1934, can be so surprising and moving: that is the magic of literature. Of words. Of stories.

 Always a pair of these women were with her, always the light burned in the cell, though she was allowed to tie a dark handkerchief over her eyes when she slept; for light had always waked Julia even more easily than noise. Always there was the offer of books, of milk, of bovril, of a walk--now she walked in a different garden from the first one, and alone, save for the officers; a garden from which she could see still more clearly the roofs of free and ordinary houses. She felt it would be something if she could just go back and  walk as she had done before, with the other remand women, in the garden with the circular path and glass-houses; but now, in an irregularly shaped garden with a railing, she wandered aimlessly about and about, on a fine day.
     There were beautiful pigeons that flew about and came down to strut over the earth beside her. They were free, fat and tame. They preened themselves and looked sharply this way and that, so that the light reflected from their beautiful iridescent necks. Julia would watch them walking about, pecking at the grass, eating the bread that she was encouraged to save up for them. She soon gave up this occupation because of the anguish that was hers when the pigeons, with a whirring of wings, rose into the air and were gone. The pigeons might go, but there was something that could not; and that was the view always before her eyes when she exercised--the roofs of houses quite close to her just beyond the prison wall. The  roofs of real houses . . . the devilish cruelty of that glimpse of roofs. It oughtn't to be possible to see smoke coming up from the chimneys of homes. There were people in those houses, people who ate and slept and took baths and clothed themselves after their fancy, who went in and out as they chose, who were so used to seeing the prison as they looked out of their back windows that they thought nothing of it. They might have an increased interest now, as they looked at those grim walls and thought: Julia Starling is in there. She hasn't got much longer. 
    There were people there whose children went to school, whose husbands came home from work; people who made their laundry lists, who did their shopping, who went to the pictures. Oh, Christ! if only she could be one of them, she wouldn't want a lover, she wouldn't want anything but to go in and out of an ordinary house and do ordinary things.
    Every day, when she waked, the roofs of the houses, and the thin spirals from their hearths, hurt her as nothing else hurt her. From the first moment in the morning when she was wakened at half-past six till the last moment at night when she tied the dark handkerchief over her eyes and tried to sleep, after the salty dose of bromide that helped her so little. The night would go in a succession of dozes and nightmares; of patches of bare, bald watchfulness. There would be the change of officers, the pint of tea, the porridge and bread and margarine. Did she want anything extra? Would she like jam, would she like marmalade, or an egg? Anything she wanted, that was the cry. She was allowed whisky and soda with her meals, as many cigarettes as she liked, and a sleeping-draught at night. She could have anything she wanted to nourish and soothe the body they were going to destroy. It was too absurd. Prayers in the chapel . . . nobody had to go to unless they wanted to, and Julia didn't want to.

--from pages 372 - 373 of A Pin to See The Peepshow


  1. "patches of bare, bald watchfulness" is excellent. I say this as an insomniac.

    1. I wish you would not be an insomniac, but at least you are not going to be hanged in the morning. Not as far we know, anyway.