A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Once again, J David Simons has written a novel that takes a wide sweep across the last century and this one, unravelling private secrets from a public life. The protagonists are Georgina Hepburn, born in 1900, English star of British silent films who suddenly quit the industry on the advent of the talkies and became a pioneer aviator and famed photographer; and Laura Scott, present-day film and tv actress, whose career is at a crossroads.
The novel has the reader enter the lives of the two women by interlocking narratives: the unpublished autobiography of Georgina (Georgie) supplemented by a landmark TV interview, and the narrative of Laura’s path to creating a one-woman play about Georgie’s life. Through the fabric of the first-person and third-person we are drawn into their careers, their families, their relationships, and in particular with Georgie, their secrets. Laura, newly parted from her agent in what seems like an irrevocable way, encounters US documentary-maker Sal Yerksaw, and jumps at the chance to be part of his plan to create a documentary and linked one-woman show on the life of Georgie Hepburn. For this he needs access to her papers and photographs, fiercely protected by her sole surviving relative, a distant cousin, whose demands amount to a refusal to co-operate. Laura has something he wants (access to the theatre world for his own vanity project), and the documentary seems to get off the ground, thanks to her building of trust with the literary executor and her discoveries in the archive. If it succeeds, with Laura as Georgie, it might be the salvation of her career, moving her out of the awkward territory where parts for older women become scarcer and scarcer until, if she can hang in there, she can play ageless icons and become one herself.
I have learned to count on J David Simons for his assured touch with an intricately unfolding, complex story, and such is the case with A Woman Of Integrity. Both women have a distinctive voice. Neither of them lives an ordinary life, and the eyes of the world are on them (though in the case of Laura, when she catches those eyes, she often sees puzzlement and wonders if she is in fact fully recognised). Georgie’s story makes her unique, with so much to tell future generations from her first-hand experience of worlds that are lost – the pioneer British film industry before the advent of the talkies, and the fledgling aviation industry and the few women aviators who gained respect in a man’s world Georgie was remembered for a crucial British film success, just before silent films were finished forever. So many actors failed to make the transition to talkies that she is able to bury the shocking secret of why she did not. Then in the 30s she becomes a pioneer aviator, renowned for long distance flight, when by accident she discovers a talent for photography. Again, a shattering event in her life grounds her, until war service in the ATA ferrying planes across Britain has her take to the air again. After the war, marriage to a famous film director gives her access to Hollywood figures, and her original, intimate portraits of them is a cover for her studies of the forgotten – un-named people who are slipping into the mists of the past.
Simons’s grasp of these lost worlds, now beyond living memory, is assured, and the ingenious vehicle by which we discern them is through the unfolding research for Sal’s and Laura’s project. The basic facts of these two women’s lives are very much in the public domain, but there are secrets that are revealed along the way. This is all handled with confident narrative skill. Both protagonists are strong characters, trying to live with integrity in worlds that do not give an easy ride to women. But both are intensely human, sometimes rebarbatively so, and Georgie in particular is capable of debatable acts including deception and revenge. They navigate a sea of men who do not get off so lightly at the hands of the author. At the end, I reflected on whether there were any men of integrity in the novel – very few, and they tend to be the shadowy ones, all bar one knightly figure. This author’s strength is in conveying the moral complexity of his characters.
What did steal over me was the artifice of using Georgie’s memoir as the vehicle of her voice. The early chapters have a naive quality, as if written by a young girl who does not know what is in store for her from the choices she makes. As her narrative continues, that voice changes character and weight, takes on the burden of her experience, grows up, then matures, then becomes emboldened. It is an ingenious way of conveying that Georgie, as well as all her other talents, is a skilled and subtle teller of her own story; another trademark of Simons, who conveyed so well in An Exquisite Sense Of What Is Beautiful his protagonist’s gifts as a novelist.
This is an ingenious and complex novel that uncovers lost and disappearing worlds, and gives voices to a range of truly individual characters that nevertheless stand for a time and its atmosphere disappearing from collective memory. As with my last experience of Simons’s work, I felt a slight alienation from the characters, just enough that I did not learn to love any of them. But I was delighted to spend time in their world, and immerse myself in their experience. Finally, I am very happy to point out what an excellent production Freight Books have made of this book, with its elegant cover design and high quality paper and typography. It is a delight to handle and to read.
J David Simons: A Woman Of Integrity. Glasgow: Freight Books, 2017. 307pp