Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘A Family and a Fortune’

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel A Family and a Fortune, published in 1939, is the only one of her twenty novels that I have read so far, but from what I have gleaned from other reviews and articles about her, they are all mordantly witty, surgical explorations, written almost entirely in the form of elegantly expressed dialogue, of the painful vicissitudes of comfortably well-off country gentry at a late Victorian-early Edwardian period of English history. Hilary Mantel, for example, refers to each one as ‘a gavotte on needles’.

The plot is complicated and eventful. It concerns the dramatic impact on the Gaveston family (and their circle) of a large inheritance; there are several deaths, a broken engagement, and various other twists and narrative turns.

In ‘A conversation between Margaret Jourdain and ICB’ in the Turtle Point Press ‘Traveltainted’ online literary magazine here (MJ was ICB’s housemate-companion for much of her adult life; she died in 1951), Compton-Burnett cheerfully agrees that she has very little interest in ‘exposition and description’, and prefers to hear her characters’ voices. Authorial comments or free indirect discourse are sparse; much of the wickedly pleasurable experience of reading this novel derives from the brilliantly orchestrated, extended sequences of internecine warfare conducted through acerbically epigrammatic drawing-room or dining-room family conversations in the Gavestons’ large country house.

Unfortunately for me, this makes it almost impossible to demonstrate the exquisite skill shown by the writer, for each speech depends on the whole context of the entire conversation, for each one is intricately woven into the whole sequence of discourse; to quote a short extract out of context would not do the longer sections justice.

Often it is difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, for the characters tend to converse in fairly large family groups, without the author ascribing a name to the speaker, or making it clear which of the group they are addressing. This means one has to read closely and attentively, and often, I found, re-read – but it’s an effort that I recommend you make, for the dialogue has some of the wit of Wilde, the insight and wisdom of Austen, and the technical dexterity and psychological subtlety of Henry James – with a touch of the bleakness and darkness found in later masters of suggestive, elliptical dialogue such as Pinter and, weirdly, Beckett himself.

What I can do is to quote a few sections in an attempt to illustrate some of the other rewarding aspects of what second son (of three) Mark Gaveston calls ‘our family drama’ (the Freudian note is apposite). His late-middle-aged father, Edgar Gaveston, is married to Blanche, whose sister Matilda (Matty), two years her senior, comes to live, along with her elderly father, Oliver, and her much-put-upon companion, Miss Griffin, in the Lodge House on the Gaveston estate, having come down in the world and grudgingly sought charitable refuge. Far from showing gratitude for Blanche and her family’s generosity, Matty displays nothing but venomous selfishness and resentful self-pity for her straitened circumstances, and she verbally skewers each of the Gavestons remorselessly, while bullying the unfortunate Miss Griffin, and anyone else who has the misfortune to enter into her sight. The Gaveston family is completed by the presence with them for much of his adult life of Edgar’s kindly, slightly younger bachelor brother, Dudley, whose inheritance of a large fortune precipitates the action of the novel.

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

Character description is one of the only occasions when the author ventures into authorial comment of any kind. When Matty first appears at the Gaveston house, this is what we are told about her:

 A fall from a horse had rendered her an invalid, or rather obliged her to walk with a stick, but her energy seemed to accumulate, and to work itself out at the cost of some havoc within her…She had never met a man [ie potential marriage material] whom she saw as her equal, as her conception of herself was above any human standard. She may also have had some feeling that a family would take her attention and that of others from herself. [This portrait is frequently shown to be accurate in Matty’s conversation later, for example:]‘Dear, dear, it is a funny thing, a family. I can’t help feeling glad sometimes that I have had no part in making one.’

Dialogue is not always unnaturally poised, literary and stylised, as most critics have complained – although it is often baroque and deviously allusive; here’s Matty, talking to the assembled characters around her, when Dudley’s huge inheritance has been revealed:

‘I too might have been left a fortune…Well, a man was in love with me or said he was; and I could see it for myself, so I cannot leave it out; and I refused him – well, we won’t dwell on that; and when we got that behind, he wanted to leave me all he had. And I would not let him, and we came to words, as you would say, and the end of it was that we did not meet again. And a few days afterwards he was thrown from his horse and killed. And the money went to his family, and I was glad that it should be so, as I had given him nothing, and I could not take and not give. But what do you say to that, as a narrow escape from a fortune?’

This speech could hardly be simpler in structure or vocabulary, with its multiple paratactic ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, those colloquial largely monosyllabic expressions and the repeated discourse marker ‘well’. This shows how the author’s skill resides not just in the beautifully wrought, subtly nuanced prose conversations, but in her ability to reveal character indirectly like this in passages of realistically, apparently straightforwardly ingenuous, dialogue. But Matty’s bitter irony at the end of this speech is breathtaking. Whether she intends to reveal so much of her sordid nastiness, or realises she’s doing so, is part of the ambiguous effect. Did she even have such an experience, or is she just making up a story about another horse accident victim to highlight her own devious self-depiction as a worse sufferer, who persists in projecting a monstrously distorted image of herself as a martyr, a long-suffering saint?  And Compton-Burnett herself acknowledges in the interview cited earlier that wrong-doing in a novel is more ‘spectacular’ and attracts more sympathy from a reader than virtue, and makes a ‘more definite picture or event’; the villain tends to ‘usurp the hero’s place’. Egocentric Matty seeks revenge on the whole world for what she perceives as the injustices life has meted out to her.

Money – a central theme and topic of conversation – is also a device for revealing characters’ flaws, defects and occasional merits (Edgar’s daughter Justine’s stern moral probity and her little brother Aubrey’s adolescent but precocious wit, for example), as Dudley’s inheritance is disbursed to then withdrawn from the other Gavestons with the plot’s rollercoaster swoops; this is Dudley, on announcing he’s to give his brother’s rancid sister-in-law, Matty, a small allowance out of his inheritance – but a generous sum nonetheless:

‘Two hundred a year is a tenth of two thousand, and it must be mean to offer anyone a tenth of what you have. It sounds as if I were keeping nine times as much for myself. I hope Matty will not hear before she goes. People don’t resent having nothing nearly as much as too little. I have only just found that out. I am getting the knowledge of the rich as well as their ways. And of course anyone would resent being given a tenth.’

‘Riches are a test of character and I am exposed’, he says soon after, when Matty writes him an unctuously ambiguous note to thank him. He is one of the few characters to emerge with much dignity. All the others reveal more or less unflattering aspects of themselves as they respond to the fluctuations of their fortunes in the light of Dudley’s (and hence their own) changes of circumstance. Watching this process unfold is fascinating and often darkly, deliciously humorous.

The dialogue distributes ambiguities, multi-faceted, hinted-at underlying meanings and innuendo, lurking insidiously below the apparently innocent surface remarks; these in turn often lead to discussion and metapragmatic debate as to what the speaker might really have meant, and how their words could or should be interpreted. It’s a heady mix.

An example of this: Dudley has announced his departure to arrange some legal matters, and his thirty-year-old niece, Edgar’s only daughter Justine – a wonderfully drawn, outspoken character, who has some stirring verbal duels with formidable Aunt Matty – has asked for one of the menfolk to take her aunt’s arm to help the self-proclaimed invalid; Matty snaps,

‘I think I may stay here, dear. I am not so able-bodied as to keep running away on any pretext…’

‘I think it would be better to forget your office [senior woman of the household at that point] for once. Too duenna-like a course is less kind than it sounds.’

‘It did not sound kind, dear. And the words are not in place. There is nothing duenna-like about me. I have no practice in such things. I have been a person rather to need them from other people.’

 As always she wrings every last drop of self-pity out of a speech intended for once by Justine to be attentive to her aunt’s needs, and a dramatic situation in which her family – even the perennially exasperated Justine – are trying to be helpful.

‘Yes, I daresay, Aunt Matty [Justine replies]. I did not mean the word to be a barbed one.

Oh, I think you probably did, Justine, and doesn’t Matty let you know it!

After one of the final critical plot developments, Dudley is stung into an uncharacteristically critical and heartfelt outburst against his brother Edgar, who has unapologetically and shamelessly stolen Dudley’s fiancée Maria Sloane from him to replace his deceased wife, and Maria is forced to contemplate the awkward position she now occupies, in another rare moment of authorial comment; this is Dudley to Edgar:

‘You may be glad to be left with your wife, and I shall be glad to leave you. I shall be glad, Edgar. I have always been alone in your house, always in my heart. You had nothing to give. You have nothing. There is nothing in your nature. You did not care for Blanche. You do not care for your children. You have not cared for me. You have not even cared for yourself, and that has blinded us. May Maria deal with you as you are, and not as I have done.’

Maria stood apart, feeling she had nothing to do with the scene, that she must grope for its cause in a depth where different beings moved and breathed in a different air. The present seemed a surface scene, acted over a seething life, which had been calmed but never dead. She saw herself treading with care lest the surface break and release the hidden flood, felt that she learned at that moment how to do it, and would ever afterwards know…

This may not be a novel to rank with Austen or James, but it’s not far off, in my view. But I think for many it will be an acquired taste. I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it think.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Comyns, ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’

Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.

Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:

At first, because I wasn’t used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute.

It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).

The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):

Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).

The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.

The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.

Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:

I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.

These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’

It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:

Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.

She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’

I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.

Virginia Woolf, ‘Between the Acts’

Virginia Woolf, née Stephens (1882-1941), was famously a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, that loosely-linked, sexually entangled set of artists and writers who originally lived and met in the Bloomsbury district of central London. I’m sure I don’t need to say more: this is well-charted territory, and my OWC edition has an informative Preface and Introduction by the great Frank Kermode.

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

Between the Acts was completed in November 1940 but published in 1941, shortly after the author had drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, having lapsed into another episode of the depression that had dogged her throughout her life. Its title derives from the novel’s central event: the staging of a ‘pageant’ about English history in the grounds of Pointz Hall, the country seat of the Oliver family.

The novel’s subject is the history and culture of England as enacted in the pageant, possibly in response to the desperate atmosphere in which it was written, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. London was enduring the blitz – the Woolfs’ London house was damaged in it. Europe had largely fallen under the Nazi onslaught, and German invasion seemed imminent. Virginia’s husband, the Jewish intellectual Leonard Woolf, knew well what his fate would be under German occupation. From their Sussex house near the south coast of England they watched some of the aerial dogfights as the German planes flew towards their target zones: the industrial centres of Britain.

The very survival of the country, and all that the Woolfs held dear in it – art, literature, civilization itself – seemed doomed. This novel can be seen, then, as concerning itself with endings: internationally and politically, but also personally. It’s set in June 1939, just before war was declared, but the crisis was clearly coming even then.

My initial response to the novel was not entirely positive. The first half reads something like an Evelyn Waugh kind of witty portrait of privileged country gentry patronising the rural peasantry, with a great deal of sparkling social conversation and concerns expressed (as with Mrs Dalloway) about the refreshments (will the fish be fresh?) and about the weather – the pageant can only be staged outdoors if fine, in the swallow-haunted barn if wet. Kermode points out, however, that the novel needs to be read as a high modernist summa of contradictory images and thoughts: it is a linguistic enactment of the polarities which make up what we consider to be reality, and out of which we strive to make some kind of coherent sense. I shall give this a try.

From the opening paragraphs another feature becomes apparent: the use of imagery as another means of attempting to convey life with all its shiftings of solidity. First we see Mrs Haines, ‘the wife of a gentleman farmer’:

a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter

 

Then Isa, wife of old Bart Oliver’s son Giles, enters:

She came in like a swan swimming in its way; then was checked and stopped.

People quote Byron (the first of innumerable intertextualities, from canonical literary authors like the Romantics and Shakespeare, to snatches of nursery rhyme), and the words, the narrative suggests – at this point focalising on Isa’s consciousness with its streaming flow –

made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was tangled with a circle of dirty duckweed; and she too in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband the stockbroker.

 

What’s going on here? It’s tempting to fall into biographical fallacy and see a prophetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s imminent death in the weedy Ouse; this may be so, but more to the point the entwined, iterated images of birds and water indicate that there are darker undercurrents, especially in the central relationships between the elderly brother and sister, Lucy and Bart Oliver, but more particularly that of Giles – who has a roving eye — and Isa, with whom he fails to connect emotionally. At the personal and the national level, that is, things are falling apart.

Images of birds and death and violence convey this. In the next paragraph Miss Haines, feeling excluded from the emotion circulating in the room, anticipates the moment in the car on the way home when

she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.

It’s a mistake, then, to read Between the Acts – as I admit I did initially – as simply a fanciful sequence of non-events and what Kermode calls ‘irrelevant fancies’; the author wasn’t especially interested in plot – her aim is to represent the randomness and incoherence of the fracturing world in the texture of her language, as poetry does. If it’s read in this spirit, the novel appears less trivial.

The animal and bird imagery is woven through the novel, illuminating as in a verbal tapestry the narrative. This too is heavily freighted with rhythmic and syntactic patterns, as Kermode shows: dyadic and triadic patterns, repetitions and inversions, heavily marked by intrusive punctuation, are frequent. Back to violent imagery and stream of troubled consciousness. Here’s Lucy Swithin –

She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake.

 

She goes on to muse about prehistoric Britain, when there were ‘rhodedendron forests’ in Piccadilly, and no English Channel divided the country from the continent. By examining this imagery it’s possible to see that Virginia Woolf is attempting, through such poetic tropes, to portray Britain in its entirety, from prehistory to the current desperate time of war, in terms of transitory fleetingness and cyclical patterns (birds inhabit the air (like warplanes?) or drift on water; their lives are short; swallows are often mentioned: they migrate – depart, arrive back). The troubled relationships of the central characters counterpoint these larger matters.

The second half of the novel I found less satisfactory. It relates in what I found to be too much detail the contents of the pageant: staged tableaux and mini-plays depicting important milestones in Britain’s history, from early cavemen to the 1930s. There are long extracts of dramatic dialogue that I confess I often skipped. I also skimmed the last 50 pages.

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition

The cover of my Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition

Between the Acts is worth reading, however, for its first half. Here’s a last extract to indicate its better poetic qualities, with those rhythmic patterns and swirling images:

Mrs Sands [the cook] fetched bread; Mrs Swithin fetched ham. One cut the bread; the other the ham. It was soothing, it was consolidating, this handiwork together…Why’s stale bread, [Lucy] mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak against people making work in the kitchen while they had a high old time hanging paper roses in the barn.

 

Some readers may find this too highly wrought; in some ways it is. But it’s also a subtle representation of the ways different people’s thoughts flow ineluctably towards the unknown, intertwining but never fully merging, laden with images (bread, clock, cat, fly) and sensations of sounds, sights and memories, from the mundane and concrete to the ethereal, abstract and imaginative. No individual can ever truly know another, this passage seems to suggest, or fully connect – but she can try. I can think of few other writers who come close to such a feat of narrative performance. Henry James, perhaps. It’s hard work, reading this novel, but probably worth the effort.

I maybe need to read it again in the light of the second thoughts I’ve begun outlining here, and the brief assessment of some of the extracts cited; and give its other half a more attentive reading. Meanwhile I have other holiday reading to post about, and more books to read. And work next week…