BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: British novelist, Atkinson, who won the Ian
St. James Award for her short stories, brings us Ruby Lennox, a quirky,
complex character who relates the events of her life and those of her
dysfunctional family with equal parts humor, fervor and candor. Ruby’s
parents own a pet shop; her mother, Bunty, bitterly rues having married
her philandering husband, George, and daydreams about what her life
might have been. Ruby has two older sisters, willful Gillian and melancholy
Patricia. Through its ambitious structure, the novel also charts five
generations and more than a century of Ruby's family history,
as reported in ``footnotes'' that follow relevant chapters. Ruby's richly
imagined account includes both the details of daily life and the several
tragic events that punctuate the family's mundane existence.
1. What other fictional narrators does Ruby Lennox bring to mind?
2. The book has been a best seller in twelve countries. What do you
think is its universal appeal?
3. Some British critics called the book "anti-family". Do
you agree? . Do you think the book might be classified as an anti-war
novel? . Give some examples of ' 'magic realism" in the book.
4. Why do you think Atkinson adopted the use of footnote chapters? Why
did she use this non-fiction technique?
5. What do cupboards have to do with the story?
6. How does the history of your area affect your daily living?
7. Talk about the animals in the book, both real and toy.
8. When did you first suspect that Ruby was a twin?
Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Kate Atkinson's first novel. It
garnered major awards. She later published four more novels as well
as plays, radio works, and short stories, and all, according to reviews
and scholarly writings, are considered to explore the quest for identity
from a young female narrator's point of view. Atkinson states that a
major influence was "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" which
she read once a week for five years, beginning at the age of five.
"Because I read Alice so often and at such a young age it formed
my idea of what a good book should be: a sensible heroine adrift in
a world of eccentrics…where magic is not out of the question.
It was the insanity that appealed to me. I loved the sheer idiocy of
'Will you walk a little faster said a whiting to a snail/ there's a
porpoise close behind us and he's treading on my tail.' I found that
insanity so comforting." "It was a world where the grownups,
i.e., the Queen, are all insane, while Alice, the child, is entirely
When we meet Ruby Lennox she has just been conceived while her mother
feigns sleep and her father begins and finishes the act to the chimes
of midnight. She is already literally and figuratively adrift in the
chilly persona of Bunty, her mother, and possesses the magical powers
of narration back and forth through time. She notes how artificial and
unhappy Bunty is, to the point of wondering what would happen if her
entire family, including her feckless husband George, were to be wiped
out. Bunty herself drifts in a fairy tale world, acting the part of
the concerned mother when attention is upon her, but barely covering
up her disappointment in family life. Fairy tale themes reoccur throughout
the book. Other themes include the untimely death of children, the effect
of two World Wars on the family, the fate of characters who "disappeared"
from their families and how women feel compelled to enter marriages
in which they become unhappy.
The fate of Ruby's family is revealed gradually, using alternating chapters
of present time narration in Ruby's lively voice, and narration of the
(mainly) female line of her family. Through these alternating "Footnote"
chapters we see the horrors of war from the men's point of view. The
language is simpler in these chapters and often tragically poetic. As
a reader and writer I was totally captivated by Atkinson's control of
language, from a sensitive death scene of a soldier to broad British
buffoonery, with Ruby's ironic and dead on humor throughout. She describes
Bunty's care as "autistic mothering."
And why is Bunty so cold and lacking in self-esteem? Ruby follows the
trail of disastrous family mothering all the way back to her great grandmother
Alice (perhaps a reference to the other Alice?), a foolish woman who
ran off with a French photographer, thus abandoning her family. Nell,
Alice's newborn, only receives "mothering" from the evil stepmother
Rachel and thus does not develop enough positive sense of self to pass
along to Bunty. I found this history of maternal dysfunction completely
believable. Part of the "problem" was that each woman, given
society's narrow options in historical times, felt compelled to marry
someone they "settled for" rather than loved. It isn't until
we reach the 1960's in the novel that the women see the possibility
of rejecting a bad marriage and leaving and taking charge of their own
lives. In this way they find their way to their own self-esteem.
Atkinson states that she dreamed of the title of the book while she
was in a dream museum, but also that it relates to the false veneer
of being English, how that is also like a museum filled with false displays.
Much of the brilliant satire in the book is an exploration of the space
between raw reality and the facade of presentation. In fact, all the
women who find happiness are those who migrate from England: Lillian
to Canada, Patricia to Australia and Ruby to Scotland. Places that offer
an authentic life style and fresh start, instead of the confines of
a class society.
For me the main thread in all the themes was abandonment. The mothers
abandon their daughters who in turn emotionally abandon their children.
Men die in wars or abandon their wives to other women. Atkinson says
that all novels are "ultimately about identity." The women
in this novel have a hard time finding who they are, largely because
they have not been loved.
This book is rich in layers and style. The ghost of Laurence Sterne
scribbles his 18th century English stream-of-consciousness novel, Tristram
Shandy, the sound of the Viking oars still whispers in the ancient York
neighborhood as well as "the first printers and stained-glass craftsmen
that filled the windows of the city with coloured lights." History
is inescapable. An ancient Roman army marches past while Patricia and
Ruby sip tea. The negative legacy of the mothers dims subtlety with
each generation. A lover of George reappears later with her secret history
revealed. Ruby finds herself falling down and down in a phantasmagoric
suicide attempt that ultimately brings to light the fact of her dead
twin sister. The pink glass button, the rabbit foot, the silver spoon
and family photographs reappear again and again through time. The past
is a cabinet filled with a combination of Fair Isle jumpers, fairy cakes,
Ealing comedies and negligent mothers. Atkinson's brilliant use of language
and imagery kept me turning the pages, sorting things out, and wishing
the book would never end. I intend to read all she has written.
Atkinson says she thought about Behind the Scenes for five years and
wrote it in five months. She claims it is not autobiographical, (though
she was born in York in 1952, of a family who owned a medical supply
shop). She states she had worked all of that out by "scribbling
in the dark" years before. She says, "Making the imagination
real, that's what writing is. That's what I like about books, that Wuthering
Heights, say, is as real as the desk I'm writing at and yet it's entirely
a product of Emily Bronte's imagination. It's a kind of validation of
self, and maybe some of us need to validate ourselves more than others."
Family Tree for Behind The Scenes At The Museum (pdf)
Questions and related informtion provided by Susannah
This discussion guide made possible with public
funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored
by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.