Saturday, December 11, 2010

Clogs and Shawls

If someone had told me that my mother would be staying with us for six weeks this year, I would have shuddered with horror. As much as I love her, we are very different people and have little in common. However, it has been remarkably easy.

I have had to make some sacrifices, including watching Wycliffe every evening, enduring the public humiliation of buying the Daily Mail and eating a diet of bland, garlic-free meals, but I can live with these.

The one thing I am having a problem with is my mother's addiction to romantic novels.

My mother is the perfect guest in many ways and demands very little, but there is one exception: when it comes to books, she is like a crack addict. She has a ten-a-week habit and starts to become nervous if she is getting near to the end of the last new book.

I am having real problems keeping pace with my mother's addiction. How do I know which titles she hasn't read before? There's no point looking at the blurb, as most of the books seem to have the same basic plot:

When Kitty Grindstone's parents drown at sea, she is sent to an orphanage where she is beaten daily. Then, at 16, she meets the handsome squire's son, Jasper Cadman, who promises to show her the love that she so desperately craves. But when Kitty reveals that she is pregnant, Cadman cruelly disowns her. Alone in the world, without a roof over her head, Kitty climbs the snow-covered Yorkshire Dales to join her beloved parents in Heaven. Little does she know that her salvation may lie with a simple farmer's son called Jeremiah Ingleby...

Or something like that.

Luckily, there are so many books to choose from, I'm in little danger of buying the same book twice (how does my mother manage to remember what she's read, when the plots all seem to follow the same pattern?)

In the book trade, this genre is known as Clogs and Shawls. They are bought by female, working-class readers, generally over 50, and are usually written by women (or men pretending to be women, like Emma Blair). Publishers and booksellers can be very dismissive about these novels, but they are the bread and butter of the publishing industry. Without these tales of poverty and illegitimacy, there would be fewer first novels by unknown authors.

My mother likes them because they seem realistic. She has no interest in reading about middle-class people or foreigners (so that's over 90% of fiction out of the picture). She wants to read about the world she grew up in and if the plots of these novels seem melodramatic, I have to remind myself that they're tame compared to my mother's family history.

I couldn't help smiling to myself when, last week, my mother complained that she was running out of books to read, as she was sitting in front of my bookcase at the time. I looked at the shelves of books behind her and wondered if there was a single title that I could persuade her to read. What about the ultimate clogs and shawls novel, Jane Eyre?

And why was she running out of books so quickly? I decided to ask my mother and she sheepishly admitted that she only read the dialogue. She has now agreed to read the prose passages as well, so I should be able to keep pace with my mother's insatiable desire for family sagas until she goes home.

Whenever that is.


Anonymous said...

Now, come on, Steerforth - there's money to be made and the world deserves to know the full, heartwarming story of Kitty Grindstone... Your mother could edit it, to make sure no smart-ass psychological depths pop in... Anna C

Steerforth said...

Good idea. I think I'll call myself Daphne Hampton - that sounds like a proper author's name.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Blimey! So that's how fast readers do it! (Writes novel consisting entirely of dialogue.)

Alan Burnett said...

I do like the idea of only reading the dialogue and I am tempted to try this approach with some of the books I have struggled with over the years (I might start with Ulysses) I have relatives (not blood relatives I must point out) who stay frequently and try to introduce the Daily Mail into the house so I have installed a little box by the front door where they must leave it in future if they want a bed for the night. Martin Hodges recommended your blog to me - he knows a good blog when he sees one.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Really made me smile. Since you mention publishing, I thought you might be interested in the word verification - "submi" - just add a "t" and Bob's your uncle (or some other cliche appropropriate to Clogs & Shawls!)

Having to choose books for your mother reminds me of my mother-in-law, who would send me off to the library with instructions to bring her a "nice murder mystery!" With all the blood and gore that's out there, not an easy task. But one which always made me smile.

I hope you and your family will have a very happy Christmas and that Father Christmas brings your mother lots of nice "Clogs & Shawls"!

Canadian Chickadee

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Really made me smile. Since you mention publishing, I thought you might be interested in the word verification - "submi" - just add a "t" and Bob's your uncle (or some other cliche appropropriate to Clogs & Shawls!)

Having to choose books for your mother reminds me of my mother-in-law, who would send me off to the library with instructions to bring her a "nice murder mystery!" With all the blood and gore that's out there, not an easy task. But one which always made me smile.

I hope you and your family will have a very happy Christmas and that Father Christmas brings your mother lots of nice "Clogs & Shawls"!

Canadian Chickadee

Kári Tulinius said...

Romance readers are also usually early adopters of technology. Here's a recent article from The New York Times about how Romance readers are buying e-readers. Another datum is the fanfic phenomenon, which could be considered an open source romance movement.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Ah bless her wooden clogs!

Until her admission about only reading the dialogue, I had assumed that that was whence your own impressive speed reading skills emanated.

I've read one or two clog and shawls in my time and can see the appeal for their demographic. Catherine Cookson was until recently the most taken out author in British libraries. However a little too grim for me, and Ms Cookson did not even always offer a particularly happy ending after everything she'd put her long-suffering heroines through. In fact her children's fiction was realistic but much more cheerful and 'Our John Willie' was a favourite book of mine as a child (made into a good children's TV drama).

Does she ever look at the internet in search of new titles and authors?

Re the Daily Mail, like comedian Marcus Brigstock, I only buy it 'cos it makes me angry enough to write.

Judith said...

This post made me smile. In the library I worked in for twenty years this genre is known as "clogs and cobbles". They are hugely popular, which is a bit odd here in NZ where neither clogs or cobbles (or shawls for that matter) are thick on the ground. "Nice" murders are also much in demand.

Grey Area said...

My mother spent the 1950's as a librarian - and our house was full of 'adopted' books - over the years as her physical and mental health declined and she became housebound - then chair and finally bed bound - her only real interest was historical fiction and faction - Antonia Fraser being a particular obsession. She also found it increasingly difficult to let books 'go' and would refuse to allow them to be returned to the library - so we had to buy them for her - and proximity was an issue - so in the end her armchair was surrounded by books in piles that she could see, if not actually reach. Her eyesight was so poor I can't believe she could actually read them - and her attention span and focus very limited.... I actually think she just liked the process of reading them. There was A LOT of Helen Forrester.....

magiciansgirl said...

I think you missed your calling, Daphne.....

Helen Brocklebank said...

Dear Daphne,
Your heartwarming tale of Kitty Grindstone had best seller written all over it, even in precis....

Lovely post - it so perfectly summed up the extraordinary comfort of books, and the satisfaction of opening a novel knowing no matter what ghastly pitfalls await the heroine, by the close the good will have ended happily, and the bad unhappily.
I can't cope with important books at the moment - Mr Trefusis keeps urging Wolf Hall on me, but so far this month I've managed a Neville Shute, a very, very readerly novel by Sarra Manning, and India Knight's Comfort & Joy, so I can really relate to what your mum is getting out of her book habit.

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - isn't that called a play? ;)

Alan - the box is an excellent idea. The one good thing about my mother's Daily Mails is that during this cold winter, I've burned Jan Moir many times.

I know exactly what Canadian Chickadee and Judith mean about "nice murders". In the British book trade, it's known as "Cosy Crime".

As far as the popularity of Clogs and Cobbles in NZ goes, it makes perfect sense. New Zealand and Australia are both products of 19th century Britain, right down to the accent, and these novels are reminders of why people were driven to emigrate.

Laura - My mother on the internet! She thinks that Google was a character in the Magic Roundabout. When I tried to explain to her about blogging, her eyes glazed over and she started to talk about "Joan's hip operation." So no, she doesn't look on the internet. I do.

Kári - Thanks for the link. It's interesting that the demographic is different in the US and I've always thought that the growth of the eBook would be particularly strong with mass market titles, where people read several books a month.

I hadn't realised that the additional attraction of the Kindle was the privacy it provided.

Magiciansgirl - You've given me an idea. I may try to bring out my inner Daphne.

Mrs Trefusis - I can't cope without important books either at the moment. I have a history of the world from an Islamic perspective sitting on my bedside table at the moment, and I know it's going to gather dust. I'd be much happier with an Inspector Wallander mystery.

Richard - when you mentioned Helen Forrester, that reminded me how many of these novels are set in Liverpool.

Re: your mother, I can imagine being equally reluctant to let go of my books, even if I became blind. They are part of who I am and their loss would make me feel diminished.

CC said...

And I wish my Mom could still read. She has been completely blind from a genetic disorder for the last almost 20 years. She refuses to listen to books on tape. Instead is glued to radio and TV political news, interviews, ravings and rantings. She knows where all bodies are buried, works herself into a lather over things and political villains (and villainesses) way beyond her control and then
regales me with it all at night when I call.
In short, it can always be worse. ;-)

Junie said...

If Derek were alive today and reading your blog, I am sure this post of yours would have prompted an dismayed and guilt-ridden entry in his diary.

Today I read about Steerforth's difficulties concerning life with his convalescent mother. When I compare his circumstances with my own, I find myself envious to a degree that first startled and then discouraged me. I fear a return of the digestive trouble that so often afflicts me when I can least afford to be distracted by physical aches and pains. But I must wonder why a man would object to providing reading material to such a delightful mother, whose only failing is her rather pedestrian (and no doubt secular) taste in books. She is, after all, a person of her time--as who is not?--now old and infirm and ladies of her age and station enjoy such harmless pleasures. And she seems in all other ways to have much to offer, as he himself admits.

When I without volition but not without guilt contrast his situation with my own concerning Nanna, I am disheartened on more than one front. Not only is Nanna unlikely ever to provide a ray of sunshine in our lives, though of course, I am grateful we can give her what help she needs and will accept, but I am cast down into darkness once again to come face to face with my moral weaknesses and failings. How can I, a man of the church and blessed by God, envy another man's lot? Why can I not rid myself of the demeaning and debilitating sin of envy? How can I hope now for an untroubled night's sleep? I shall pray long and hard about this matter, that I may be of real service to my family, my church and my God.

Strange it is indeed to realize that even so innocent a pleasure as perusing another's musings on this largely uncharted space, the Internet, should have tempted me to regard my lot with disfavor and envy another man his good fortune.

Steerforth said...

Haha! Very good Junie - I like it!

You're quite right and actually, I'm really pleased that the books are giving my mum so much pleasure (but that would make a less amusing blog post).

CC - It's odd that you're mother won't listen to books on tape, but perhaps her obsession with current affairs makes her feel more connected to a world that her blindness has isolated her from.

Mrs Jones said...

I have three words for you - Library. Library. Library. My mother-in-law is exactly the same as your mum, she'll read a book a day and would be bankrupt if she bought every one. She also only likes to read British murder mysteries set in any period between 1920 and 1950, which kinda limits the selection you can choose from. But, yeah, get her to join your local library.

Steerforth said...

That would make perfect sense, but I know that my mother would recoil at the idea. She doesn't like hardbacks because they're too heavy and even though libraries have a good stash of paperbacks, she's a bit funny about where they've been.

At home, my mum buys her books from a market stallholder who sells new titles for £1.50 and if he doesn't have what you want, he'll get it within 24 hours.

I've told Mum that she's probably buying stolen goods, but she doesn't believe me.

Anonymous said...

Oh this made me laugh out loud, thank you! I used to go to the library for romance books for my elderly neighbour - though not for her newspapers, thank goodness - and I can relate to this. She had very specific requirements about what she would and wouldn't accept, and I had to preview books for her. The thing is that even seven years after she passed away, I still find myself stopping at the romance section and thinking, "Oh I bet Mary would like that"!

Steerforth said...

It must be horrible to be dependent on others. We all have our little quirks and when we buy things, we aren't accountable to anyone.

If I had to explain my criteria for what constituted a good read to someone, I know I'd end up sounding ridiculous.

Margaret Pinard said...

Well now, I've searched 'clogs and shawls' and come up aces with this 10-year-old blog post! I hope all amused and amusing commenting parties and the author are doing well. I found the phrase in an HNS book review, and must confess myself a bit worried that it is so mocked, and yet 'Jane Eyre' could be considered the Patient Zero of the genre--it's my favorite book! Hmm. Hoping you all have plenty to read during quarantine, Xx.