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Check Out My Tabs Above - All about books and about people with a passion for reading and writing books in all their forms - old and new. Books as love affairs, memories, surprises, identification and physical entities are part of the passion.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

More Betty Miller (3) : The lovely Sharon Griffiths on Farewell Leicester Square

After reading earlier posts here about the intriguing writer  Betty Miller, my learned friend Sharon Griffiths - Columnist, Journalist, Novelist, - read Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square and was buzzing with opinions -  

Here's Sharon :

'Can a book be  too honest for its own good? Or, more importantly, for the greater good?  Sometimes, just sometimes, it might be better not to publish.

In 1935 Victor Gollancz, a publisher both Jewish and English,   refused to publish Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square.   She was  utterly convinced of the novel’s worth. Told a friend it would be ‘one of the best novels Gollancz has ever published.’  Only Gollancz didn’t publish.

At first that seems surprising.  Though still only twenty five years old, Betty Miller already had three successful novels by Gollancz.  Her writing is fluid, intelligent, entertaining. The book was eventually published six years later by Robert Hale.

Farewell Leicester Square has much to recommend it.  It tells the story of Alexander Berman, a young Jewish boy who rebels against life in his father’s tobacco shop and yearns to work in the booming film industry.  As a young man he is helped by a famous English director who lives in a very English middle class house and has two very English middle class children , Basil and Catherine– seen,  briefly by Alec on their way to a riding lesson, dressed in jodphurs, casually swinging riding crops.  Alec falls in love, not only with 14 year  old Catherine but everything she represents.

Alec becomes a successful director.  Yet is always aware of the Jewishness that sets him apart.  Betty Miller’s  descriptions of him are physically unappealing.  Alec’s own observations of his Jewish friends are not flattering.  The book notes the subtle anti-semitism of the English middle classes, but above all, it observes the anti-semitism of its own Jewish hero.
He marries Catherine.  They have a son.  Yet Alec seems  frightened of becoming an involved father and when his son is teased at school for being Jewish, it seems that he allows Catherine and the boy to leave him  and does little to protect them or keep the family together.  Instead, he retreats to the his own  birth family and  the Jewishness that he’d rejected years before.
But it is not  a positive choice, more an easy way out that will justify his failed marriage, in the way that we all go home when there is nowhere else to go.

Alec Berman is in many ways a successful and sympathetic man, yet he seems to pin all his problems  on the fact of being Jewish.  This is not only not entirely true, it also becomes unpleasant and, ironically the worst sort of racism – the sort that would be mocked years later by Ali G and his ‘Is it because I is black?’ refrain.

The novel emphasises the difference of Jewishness,   makes Jewish characteristics seem repellent  and suggests that a Jew can never be properly English.  It might be honest, but it’s not attractive.  At the moment that doesn’t matter that much.  In 1935 it did.

At a distance of more than seventy years  Betty Miller’s  frank depiction of the attitudes of its time make it even more fascinating to read now.  But that’s also  exactly why it wasn’t  the sort of book to publish in the 1930s.  Gollancz was right.'

Shows why some novels are important in and out of their time. Makes you want to read it even more ...w

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