Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month’s starting point is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock chosen by Brona. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the book but what really sticks in my mind is Peter Weir’s mesmeric film adaptation which I must have seen at least four times. Those inappropriately clad young ladies, all white muslin dresses and black boots, climbing Hanging Rock in blistering heat then disappearing without trace made a striking image on the big screen. It’s rare for me to think that a film adaptation either matches or eclipses the book but very occasionally it does happen which leads me to my second book.

I’m not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf but I have read and enjoyed Orlando, although not as many times as I’ve seen Sally Potter’s sumptuous film adaptation which *whisper it* I prefer. In the book the eponymous protagonist begins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England and ends as a young woman in 1928, the year women were enfranchised; the movie takes her up to the 1990s. Archly comic, the film is full of gorgeous tableaux with Tilda Swinton as a fabulous Orlando, charmingly gauche and suitably androgynous, seamlessly changing gender after a century or so.

One of Woolf’s best known novels follows a day in the life of an upper-class woman in post-First World War England which leads me to John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips who puts on his suit, packs his briefcase and leaves his South London house one warm July Monday morning. He’s worked as an accountant for over thirty years and has been made redundant but can’t quite bring himself to tell Mrs Phillips. So begins a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, visit the Tate Gallery and become caught up in one of the biggest dramas of his life. Strewn with coincidences, this take on Mrs Dalloway gets under the skin of middle-aged suburbia in a funny yet poignant portrayal of a man a little lost in the world.

John Lanchester wrote a post-financial crash novel called Capital, dramatized for TV last year, as did Alex Preston. This Bleeding City is about a hedge fund trader, freshly graduated, who becomes distracted by a beautiful woman and a non-stop, drug-fuelled culture of excess. I have to confess that although I’ve read this I had to sneak a quick look at Goodreads to remind myself of it. What did stay with me was the knowledge that Preston’s previous career was as a City trader. Presumably he’s a changed man as  he’s recently collaborated with Neil Gower on what looks like a gorgeously illustrated book about nature, due to be published soon, called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Which takes me to Kathleen Jamie one of my favourite nature writers. In Findings she tracks the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplates salmon jumping on a Highland river and experiences the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

Jamie is an acclaimed poet as was the late Helen Dunmore one of my favourite authors and much mourned. Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. Much of the action in Birdcage Walk takes place in 1792, the French Revolution a worrying spectre across the channel, which takes me to my next book.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Dunmore set her novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. The book is a powerful critique both of women’s education and the assumptions surrounding marriage and family life, and was very much a product of Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, tempered by her disappointment at the failure to take up the cause of women’s rights. It’s at once optimistic, passionate and angry.

So ends my second Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls to a passionate argument for women’s rights. I think I’m hooked on this now. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or perhaps even join in.

26 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees”

  1. Some clever connections here Susan, especially the leap from Dunmore to Wollstonecraft. I had the Dunmore from the library but couldnt get to it before it needed to go back (no renewals allowed because of the waiting list apparently) so will have to try again later in the year

  2. I haven’t read any Helen Dunmore, but it seems like I should rectify this. What is it that you especially like about her to make her one of your favourite authors?

    1. Oh, I hope you do. She’s a very thoughtful writer, each word carefully chosen which I put down to her work as a poet. I’ve only read one novel by her that I didn’t enjoy – Counting the Stars – and can heartily recommend all the others.

        1. I hope you do, although I think everyone should read Helen Dunmore. You’ve made quite a journey, yourself, this month. I particularly like the leap from Jodi Picoult to Arthur Miller.

    1. Thanks, Annabel. I saw something to that effect in the Observer, I think, last week. The book looks absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful illustrations from what I’ve seen.

  3. Very clever connections there. I enjoy these six degrees of separation posts (though I probably don’t comment enough on them). I loved Orlando but oddly enough haven’t seen that film. I never did manage to get around to Capital despite having it on my kindle. I read one collection of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful essays though without checking I can’t remember the title- I think it might have been Findings.

    1. Thanks, Ali. I’ve only done two so far but they’re a joy to put together. I know you’re a big Woolf fan so I can see that you might prefer not to see the film.

  4. What wonderful connections you have made – Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore are two favourites right there (and Virginia Woolf – I did enjoy the book, but then I haven’t seen the film adaptation, so can’t comment).

  5. I’m amazed to discover that so many people outside of Australia have seen the film of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is certainly mesmerizing and one of the rare cases of book and film being equally good. It is also one of those films that seemed to be rerun on tv every year but of course, since I’ve been wanting to watch it again, it hasn’t been shown – fingers crossed it’s on sometime this year to celebrate the story’s birthday.

    I haven’t read any Dunmore however my library recently got a bunch of Dunmore audio titles – where should I start?

    1. Not so here, I’m afraid. I think I may have to track down a DVD as I feel the need to watch it again now.

      That’s a hard one. If you’re after one of her more suspenseful novels I’d say Talking to the Dead but if you want a more historical one I’d start with The Siege.

  6. Wonderful chain! I’ve not read This Bleeding City but I really have trouble sympathising with city traders so I suspect it may not be for me. Mind you, I did feel a bit for Roger in Capital, so maybe I could give it a try…

      1. Thanks Susan. My day job is training teachers in the Reflective Reading programme and I’m always on the look-out for ideas to engage children with books. I think they’d enjoy this challenge.

        1. I’m sure they would. These posts are great fun to write, not least because every blogger ends up somewhere very different from where we all start which should appeal to children.

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