If Ursula Todd, born during a blizzard at Fox Corner in 1910, the youngest daughter of Sylvie and Hugh, had been from a family of golfers, she might have been named Mulligan. She had the dubious distinction of living a life of do-overs, reshuffling the circumstances until she got it right. Her mother, of the forest, named her, but it was her father, bright of mind and spirit, who always called her his little bear, like the constellation, Ursu Minor. Those who've studied astronomy - or the Romantic poets - know the brightest star, Polaris, is found at its tail and is viewed - by both sailors and lovers - as a reliable guide through stormy seas. Or, as Christina Rossetti put it:
one unchangeable upon a throne
Broods o'er the frozen heart of earth alone,
Content to reign the bright particular star
Of some who wander and of some who groan.
It may have been a struggle for Ursula, to bear (ouch!) such a burden, but for us as readers, in the hands of my current crush/favorite author, Kate Atkinson, it is a compulsively satisfying journey. Among her many incarnations, Ursula became a battered wife and a career woman; an aborted mother and a devoted parent; victims of both the London Blitz and the Allied bombing of Berlin; an assassin and a civil servant. Despite the contradictions in her circumstances, she remained true to herself. She was an embodiment of her family, her community and her country, but also a realist, who accepted the conditions dealt to her by fate; amor fati . This acceptance, however necessary, didn't absolve her from responsibility. She was brave, loyal and loving to those she cared about - expecting the same from them - and fiercely independent, a paragon of modern feminism in the turmoil of the early 20th century.
You can't escape the notion that Atkinson believes that men have made a mess of things, ignoring both history and good sense. Ursula's experience with them was mixed. Her father and her brother, Teddy-another bear-were exemplars, but she wasn't as lucky in love or marriage. The others she encountered, from her older brother Maurice, a bellicose bully who grew up to be a politician, to her German husband, a Nazi, were duplicitous, prone to violence or, in the case of Adolf- the wolf-Hitler, insane. One of her best characters, another sort of Woolf, was described as either a woman of influence or someone who simply refused to take no as an answer. In another situation, Ursula declared that "all that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good women to do nothing." For Ursula, home was an idea, and like Arcadia, it was lost in the past and predicated on something that never existed. The relief which swept over her, each time the calendar was reset, was a reminder to us that life isn't about becoming, but about being. As Dr Kellet, Ursula's psychiatrist, explained it to her mother, "Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past no present, only the now." Sylvie's response to him is an apt metaphor for this enchanting, lyrical novel about surviving in turbulent times: "How gnomic," she said stiffly.