The possibility of happiness: Rebecca West, This Real Night

Rebecca West, This Real Night (Virago Modern Classics, 2000; first published 1984)

This is volume 2 in the trilogy ‘A Saga of the Century’, about the Aubrey family in early 20C England. The story resumes where The Fountain Overflows (about which I posted here recently) left off. Once again its hallmark is the offbeat perceptions of young narrator, Rose, who can be ‘sometimes savage’ as she’s allowed to grow up with minimal parental intervention, and with some unconventional views on life:

A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness.

She and her twin sister Mary have taken up their places in music academies in London, while beautiful eldest sister Cordelia, now resigned to the fact that she has no musical talent, has abandoned her ill-advised career as a concert violinist.

Rebecca West, This Real Night VMC edition coverIn This Real Night we see the twins maturing into young women, and beginning to recognise the unromantic harshness of life as professional classical pianists. Richard Quin, the adored baby brother of TFO, is slightly less cloying in this novel, as he too grows up. By the close, Mamma says of Rose and Mary that they’ve changed, like Cordelia: ‘Much of the original brutality has gone’, she muses placidly.

Money troubles are over now that profligate father Piers has deserted them. Mr Morpurgo, their kindly benefactor, plays a larger role in this novel, but his geniality is soured by his catty wife, who presides over an awkward lunch party with the Aubreys with vindictive, graceless spite.

There are more charming, heartwarming scenes as the girls develop slightly more sophisticated insights into the turbulent world of mysterious adults. Their idyllic visits to Aunt Lily, now established in a friendly Thameside pub, enable a measure of stability and peace to enter their lives after the heartache of their father’s disappearance. There is a dramatically violent scene there involving Lily’s genial landlord friend, Uncle Len, and a gang of desperado gipsies, which profoundly shocks the girls and teaches them yet another harsh life lesson.

Along with the often unreliable insights of Rose, this novel’s main strengths lie in the portrait of her Mamma, a saintly, eccentric and hugely gifted woman. She has taught her children to play and appreciate music with rare sensitivity, but has failed to show such insight into her feckless husband – who she continues to adore even when he’s abandoned her and the children.

Rose’s view of this marriage is characteristically skewed and partial, but it provides another opportunity to learn about life’s vicissitudes, especially for girls and women:

Indeed, marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.

The tone of this novel is darker and more melancholy in some ways than TFO, published nearly thirty years earlier. Mamma’s frail hold on life becomes increasingly tenuous. Death’s shadow lengthens over the family, darkened ever more ominously by the onset of World War I.

It reads very like a spirited, unconventional autobiography, and perhaps reveals the author’s unfinished editing process. Rebecca West died in 1983, and This Real Night (like the final volume, Cousin Rosamund) was published posthumously. It would have benefited from some judicious pruning – but still contains delights.

Once again there are some dazzling descriptions of music and art, and serious reflections on the nature of creativity and its redemptive place in a secular, commercial, largely artless and dull modern world.

It’s not a great novel, but it is seriously good. Rose’s increasing awareness of the importance of moral rectitude and decency in human relations is developed without too much tub-thumping or piety, and is offset by the sometimes spiky humour and bizarre incongruities, especially about Cordelia, who lacks the other siblings’ artistic sensibility and zany imagination. Her desperate need for normality and urge to escape this (to her mind) crazy family is finally realised when she marries an equally uninspired man. His wealthy family views the Aubreys as quaintly plebeian and ‘humble’, while they, viewing his family,

were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton.

Rohan Maitzen wrote a detailed, perceptive review of this novel at Open Letters Monthly in Dec. 2013

 

The V & A revisited: Tobias, Sara and the dog

I posted yesterday about my recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with old friends (one of whom reacted indignantly at being called ‘old’), and the image painted on glass of St Mary of Egypt.

Another that took my fancy was this one, of Tobias and Sara on their wedding night.  It was made (probably) in Germany c. 1520; is clear and coloured glass with printed details and silver stain. It’s in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Room 64: The Wolfson Gallery.

This is the story on the V&A website [with additions of my own]:

The Book of Tobias recounts the story of the pious aged Tobit and how his son, Tobias, with the aid of the archangel Raphael, was able to restore his father’s health and wealth. The archangel Raphael, in disguise, leads Tobias to the lands of his kinsman Raguel. Raguel gives his daughter Sara in marriage to Tobias but warns him that Sara’s seven previous husbands had all been devoured by demons on the wedding night. (Wikipedia adds that ‘the demon of lust, Asmodeus, “the worst of demons” [which implies some of them are really quite nice] abducts and kills every man whom Sarah [spelt with an H] marries, on their wedding night before the marriage can be consummated.

With Raphael’s aid, Tobias prepares a potion, the smell of which drives the demons out. He and Sara are able then to successfully consummate their marriage.

The dog sleeping on their bed belonged to Tobias and accompanied him and Raphael on their journey. In this context he may also symbolise marital love and fidelity.

Wikipedia adds [edited]:

‘Along the way [on his journey to Media], whilst [Tobias] washes his feet in the river Tigris, a fish tries to swallow his foot. By the angel’s order, he captures it and removes its heart, liver and gall bladder.

Upon arriving in Media, Raphael tells Tobias of the beautiful Sarah, whom Tobias has the right to marry because he is her cousin and closest relative. The angel instructs the young man to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the demon when he attacks on the wedding night.

The two marry, and the fumes of the burning organs drive the demon to Upper Egypt, where Raphael follows and binds him. Sarah’s father has been digging a grave to secretly bury Tobias (whom he assumed would die). Surprised to find his son-in-law alive and well, he orders a double-length wedding feast and has the grave secretly filled…After the feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael tells the youth to use the fish’s gall to cure his father’s blindness. Raphael then reveals his identity and returns to heaven, and Tobit sings a hymn of praise…’

Sadly, the dog that is said to accompany Tobias and the angel on his journeys disappears from the story – though this glass panel clearly shows him curled up asleep on the newlyweds’ bed (another nice domestic touch is the slippers left beside the bed – a visual reminder, perhaps, that domestic/marital order has been restored with the banishing of the demon).

Michael Gilmour has a small piece in The Huffington Post Blog, suggesting the dog is in fact an angel, too. I find this unlikely. Look at him, snugly snoring on the duvet. Not very angelic, is he?

When my old friends and I looked at this image, we were puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Tobias agrees to marry and sleep with a woman whose previous seven bridegrooms hadn’t survived the night. OK, Raphael had given him the smelly fish potion, but that wouldn’t have put my mind at rest in Tobias’s position. It’s a charming image, nonetheless. It looks strangely familiar: I’ve seen it somewhere before, but can’t recall where. A Penguin book cover? A postcard I once had?

I recall writing in a notebook many years ago a line from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit: mercifully ordain that we may become aged together (Bk 8.8) I’ve a vague feeling it has a DH Lawrence connection, but an online search turned up nothing. I’d be grateful if anyone knows of his having used the line anywhere; maybe I’m just imagining it.

Mary of Egypt

Nothing particularly literary about this brief post. Just wanted to share my excitement at coming across this image a couple of weekends ago. I was with two of my oldest friends, who live in Chiswick, West London, and we went up to the Victoria and Albert Museum in S. Kensington. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before.

It holds a weird pot-pourri of randomly collected objects, loosely arranged into galleries that seem ostensibly to have a logical connection, but don’t.

After a while we found ourselves passing through a hall filled with stained glass images. Out of habit, I checked a few for my saint, Mary of Egypt, the one whose medieval English lives I’d researched as a postgrad so many years ago, when I was a hagiographer. What were the chances…and there she was, as I looked at a random sequence of panels.

Dating from 1670, made in Cologne, the panels depict the penitent saint kneeling before the Virgin and child. It seems to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Anna Geilsbach. Here’s what the V&A say about it on their website (though I’d be happy to update their cursory summary of her legend):

This painted oval panel was probably commissioned by Anna Geilsbach as a marriage panel. It may have been in her home originally, or donated to her local church.

In the middle of the 16th century, new techniques for producing decorated glass were introduced. Glass paints known as ‘enamels’ were used to paint directly onto the glass, similar to painting onto a canvas. To produce the colours, metallic oxides were added to a glass frit mixture. The resulting colour range included delicate blues and greens, as we see here in this panel.

The V&A is one of the strangest, most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. It’s as if benefactors across the years and continents have said to the directors: I have all this eclectic stuff, would you like it? And they’re like, yeah, please. And they stick it all into galleries.

And it’s all free. Wonderful. Here’s another nice image from another irrelevant room: it’s St Jerome, but I neglected to make a note of who made it, or when. But it’s rather splendid – even without his usual attribute (as a hermit) of a mournful lion:

 

Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

What is music about? Rebecca West, ‘The Fountain Overflows’

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics, 2011) First published 1956

A while ago I wrote about the spiky charm of Barbara Comyns’ novel Sisters by a River; The Fountain Overflows is also narrated largely from the point of view of a child. Rose seems to be about six at the start of the novel, and is in her early teens by the end. It’s her ingenuously penetrating (and often disarmingly warped) insights into the lives of the adults around her, and sporadically sharp-eyed analysis of her three siblings and other children (‘We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes’), that lend this narrative its pungency, acerbity and lopsided humour. Its stylistic and psychological naiveté are tempered by the maturer reflections of the narrator at the time of writing, fifty years later.

Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows cover VMC editionHere’s how we first see Clare Aubrey, Rose’s mother, once a brilliant concert pianist, now a shabby-genteel Edwardian housewife:

Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face.

The metaphor there is typical of the flashes of menace and cruelty that serve as counterpoint to the surface childlike tranquillity of this dark domestic tragic-comedy. Rose never loses track of the family’s precarious situation, and the always imminent proximity of disaster.

A fleeting reference is made early on to the mother’s having ‘second sight’. When Rose first visits cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance’s house, she and her mother calmly banish malevolent poltergeists by their very presence. Later, Rose is chastised by her mother for using her mind-reading and fortune-telling ability as a party trick. I found this supernatural aspect of the novel rather incongruous and grating.

Her improvident, handsome rogue of a father, who engages in a ‘lifelong wrestling match with money’, gambles and loses what little he earns as a writer. With his scornful manner he alienates the patrons who are impressed by his polemical articles, and dallies with women flagrantly. Yet Rose adores him; all the family do. That’s their problem:

My father, though very cruel, was very kind. [Two pages later:] He was often kind, but he was also ungrateful.

Rose is infatuated with him, but not blind to his selfishness and egregious faults: ‘Human relations are essentially imperfect,’ she muses on seeing a photo of him as a young man. Even his brave intervention to save a murderess, mother of one of Rose’s school friends, shows a thoughtless disregard for the possibly disastrous effect on his family this might have if he fails and goes to prison.

The father’s serial recklessness worsens the already tense marital/familial atmosphere:

We were at first puzzled by the nature of the calamity that had struck our household. We had read a great part of Shakespeare and a good many novels but nothing in them had modified our conviction that Papa and Mamma could not have any very strong interest in each other, as they were not related by blood.

Precocity and childishness combine like this throughout the narrative, but somehow usually managing to avoid cloying (though I found Rose’s attempts to portray little brother Richard Quin as an angelic pet tiresome).

This is Rose on big sister Cordelia, towards whom she tends to harbour murderous thoughts:

At school, we noticed, she got on discreditably well. The wrong sort of teacher liked her in the wrong sort of way, and they were constantly giving her what they called ‘little tasks’ and mentioning her as an example of esprit de corps; and she spoke to them with an air of professed insipidity which we took seriously as a betrayal of childhood. Of course grown-ups wanted children to be blanks, but no decent child, with parents like ours, would encourage them. We saw her paying too high a price for the approval of people who were not Papa and Mamma, and we felt about her as a soldier in a besieged citadel might feel about a comrade who is meditating desertion. Quite often we hated her. But the love of the flesh which binds a family together in its infancy was still strong…Often we loved her.

Poor Cordelia is the only non-musical child, but mistakenly believes her equally talentless music teacher, the faux-bohemian, pretentious Miss Beevor, when she tells her she is a genius violin player. ‘Cordelia is such rubbish’, complains Rose to her Mamma. Cordelia smarts with indignation at the eccentricity and profligacy of the household, longing for normality and to escape: “We are being so badly brought up,” she shrieks at one particularly exasperated moment.

More than a saga about a wildly eccentric family, TFO is really about art, and in particular, music. All four children are trained as musicians by their mother as a means ultimately of earning a living – except for Cordelia, whose beauty they hope will net her a rich husband before she can make too much of a spectacle of herself attempting to perform in public.

This is Rose and twin sister Mary, near the end, discussing their enigmatic, much-loved cousin Rosamund, a beautiful but strangely passive, apparently unmusical girl:

‘…I say, Mary, do you understand Rosamund?’

‘Quite often, no,’ said Mary.

‘Of course, we would find it easier to understand her if she were a musician too,’ I said.

‘Well, she may not be a musician, but she is what music is about,’ said Mary.

‘What is music about?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it is about life, I suppose, and specially about the parts of life we don’t understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.’

This is the first volume in an unfinished trilogy of novels about the Aubrey family. I’ve ordered the next two.

Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.