About Simon Lavery

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Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 3: to purify the blood of the tribe

One of Trollope’s greatest strengths is that his good characters are far from perfect, his villains not just all bad. When Dr Thorne was first presented in Ch. 2 he was described ambiguously for the man proclaimed the novel’s hero, preferred over the handsome young squire’s son who loves the doctor’s niece Mary:

No man plumed himself on good blood more than Dr Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree.

‘High blood’ is a relative or illusory concept, then, and possession of wealth without ‘family’ not necessarily a barrier to the highest station or moral probity – as the rise of Sir Roger Scatcherd from stonemason to plutocrat shows – another richly drawn character, part drunken oaf, part genius, with a generous heart, morally sickly son, and fatal addictions (so much for blood). Here’s how the narrator carries on his portrait of the hero:

Let it not be thought that our doctor was a perfect character. No, indeed; most far from perfect. He had a pride in being a poor man of a high family; he had a pride in repudiating the very family of which he was proud; and he had a special pride in keeping his pride silently to himself.

Here it must be remembered that the doctor’s brother raped the village girl, ‘of good character and honest, womanly conduct’, Roger Scatcherd’s sister, who resulted in becoming Mary’s mother – even the doctor’s pride in his family isn’t entirely merited.

The novel can be seen, then, as a dramatization of the ways a symbolic blood transfusion can serve to revitalise a decadent and atrophied upper class; blood and money can mingle. Sort of reverse vampires. There are frequent repulsive images of upper-class ‘blood’ being ‘diluted’, ‘sullied’ or even ‘polluted’ by upper class types marrying beneath them, ‘paving the way for revolutions’, as the Lady Amelia de Courcy – a ‘consummate hypocrite’, we learn later, when she betrays her cousin despicably – puts it to her cousins Augusta and Arabella.

Trollope shows throughout the novel that the aristocracy and gentry, intent on preserving their blood’s supposed “purity”, are prepared to ‘marry money’ if they can’t marry each other. Ch. 39 is called ‘What the World Says About Blood’ (no prizes for guessing what that might be), and it ends with besieged Frank proclaiming: ‘Will my blood ever get me a half crown?’ He represents the new generation of gentry, rejecting the snobbery and hypocrisy of his elders and embracing change, ‘human quality’ rather than rank.

Wealthy, spirited Miss Dunstable – one of Trollope’s most appealing female characters so far – urges Frank after his half-hearted proposal (forced upon him by his mother, Lady Arabella) not to ‘sell [himself] for money!’ It’s she who encourages him to follow his heart and persist with his love for Mary, rather than to submit to the edicts of his rank-obsessed, gold-digging mother (his father, the squire Gresham, is a far kinder, more decent example of the gentry; Trollope doesn’t praise or dismiss social groups, but individuals, as we saw with his first two in this series about clergy). Wealthy people without ‘family’, that is, can be virtuous, unselfish and morally stalwart.

The status quo can be maintained, however, and stability restored, without a revolution. That inoculation of better blood is provided by the truly ‘perfect’ Mary — a much more significant role for her, as Trollope presents it, than that of her father’s ‘angel who brightened his own hearthstone’, the romantic heroine, the ‘base born’ and ‘nameless’ protagonist of the inheritance plot mentioned last time. Her importance resides in her purity of spirit and moral integrity, inherited from her father, but divested of the pride, pretensions, arrogance and contrariness which prevents him from effecting such a social change himself. He can challenge the aristocracy, force it to regroup, but not defeat it definitively.

That’s Mary’s role – and she does it by sticking to her own principles to win her battles against the snobs. She’s ultimately able to ascertain what her own ‘rank’ might be – a question she often asks herself since she only learns about the true identity of her parents at the novel’s end – and that discovery neatly resolves all the class conflicts that have occupied the rest of the narrative:

On one point Mary’s mind was strongly made up. No wealth, no mere worldly advantage could make anyone her superior. If she were born a gentlewoman, then was she fit to match with any gentleman…If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualized quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

The narrator calls the characters who think like this (Dr Thorne is the other main example) ‘democrats’. Not entirely an insult from this conservative writer: he’s learning to show latitude.

So instead of this ‘bastard child’ potentially infecting what ‘the world’ calls her social ‘superiors’ like the Greshams with her ‘ill blood’, as even her own father worries at one point, bringing about ‘poverty’ and ‘sullied’ offspring, tainting or defiling the family line, she will reinvigorate it, restore its dwindling vitality.

Not ultimately a particularly revolutionary novel, then. But it’s not an entirely reactionary one.

Property and human quality: Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 2

In Dr Thorne the dangers threatening the pastoral, idyllic, conservative world of Barsetshire appear not in the ‘clerical aristocracy’, as in the first two novels in the Chronicles, but in ‘the old, feudal and now so-called landed interests’. The novel poses the question, What makes a gentleman (or woman)? It’s another way of asking, What makes one person another’s superior? The answers he provides are more complicated and ambivalent than might have been suspected of a novelist with the reactionary reputation of Trollope.

Raymond Williams (in The English Novel: From Dickens to Hardy) concedes that assessed against certain ‘abstract criteria’ Trollope is George Eliot’s superior as a writer, but lacks the perception she shares with Hardy of the ‘creative disturbance’ of that ‘unprecedented time’, that capacity to question ‘in a profoundly moral way’ the ‘real and assumed relations between property and human quality’. Trollope, I’d suggest, shows that it’s not a sufficient or even necessary qualification just to be nobly born, and does attempt to explore ‘human quality’. Trollope is assuredly no George Eliot, but he’s not entirely blind to the corruption and venality of the inheriting classes he portrays; neither does he idealise the rising moneyed middle classes.

In the first chapter it’s the Greshams of Greshambury who largely represent this imperilled upper class, facing ‘[s]uch changes’ that ‘had taken place in England’ since their estate was founded that they find themselves having to ‘protect themselves like common folk, or live uprotected’. In other words, there’s not much to distinguish them from these ‘common folk’; their sense of superiority is deluded. Our narrator continues:

But the old symbols remained and may such symbols long remain among us; they are still lovely and fit to be loved. They tell us of the true and manly feelings of other times: and to him who can read aright, they explain more truly than any written history can do, how Englishmen have become what they are. England is not yet a commercial country…and let us hope that she will not soon become so. She might surely as well be called feudal England or chivalrous England.

He goes on to concede that in fact England has become ‘a commercial country’ but only in the sense that Venice was –

yet it is not that in which she most prides herself, in which she most excels. Merchants as such are not the first men among us; though it perhaps be open, barely open, to a merchant to become one of them. Buying and selling is good and necessary…but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

Trollope appears to side then with the forces of conservatism and against the hostile invasions of the newly rich. Typically, though, he goes on in the rest of the novel to show that some of these dangerous invaders are in many ways morally and personally superior to the effete and atrophied aristocracy and the traditions they represent that he’d defended so stoutly here. His vision of a restored, revitalised rural gentry involves an injection of new blood from a more robust class – as I hope to show next time – and a severe self-examination as their faults are exposed and exploited by smarter and more morally and personally robust characters.

He resorts frequently to the imagery of battle and warfare, as he had in the power struggles among the clergy in the first two novels, to dramatise this social-economic-political shift; it’s a battle between an uneasy alliance of the ‘high blood and plenty of money’ of the haughtily aristocratic but morally deficient de Courcy class – we met the Countess of that ilk in all her supercilious arrogance in Barchester Towers — and their allies by birth the Greshams (albeit they’ve impoverished themselves, and lack the noble title, and who represent the pastoral gentry), and the rising, irresistible, ambitious bourgeoisie – the professional and merchant-commercial classes.

Ch. 26 is entitled ‘War’ – the conflict between stubborn, proud, middle-class professional Dr Thorne and Lady Arabella Gresham, Frank’s mother, sister of Earl de Courcy, ‘full of the de Courcy arrogance’. The chapter shows Trollope at his serious-comic best: Arabella had earlier defeated the upstart doctor by banishing his daughter from her intimate friendship with the Gresham household because Frank had proposed to Thorne’s daughter Mary, illegitimate and dowry-less, and therefore not a suitable match for the heir to the heavily mortgaged Gresham estate; he’d had his orders – to ‘marry money’ and restore the estate to its own family out of the hands of their creditors.

Encouraged by this apparent victory, she’d come to ‘despise the enemy she had conquered, and to think that the foe, once beaten, could never rally.’ She’s condescended to make a rare visit the doctor’s own house to broaden her anti-Thorne campaign by insisting that ‘all confidential intercourse between [her daughter] Beatrice and Mary’ be ended; the two young women had grown up together in the Gresham household and become close friends, but Arabella fears this intimacy will fortify Mary in her betrothal to the foolish ‘boy’ Frank.

It’s a wonderful scene, consisting mostly of fizzing, sparring dialogue almost as sharp and subtle as any in Jane Austen, as Thorne refuses to acquiesce to her imperious, insulting demands. Lady Arabella is routed this time, ‘not destined to gain any great victory’:

It was not the man’s vehemence that provoked her so much as his evident determination to break down the prestige of her rank, and place her on a footing in no respect superior to his own. He had never before been so audaciously arrogant…

This brilliantly depicted defeat problematizes Trollope’s snobbish assertion in Ch. 1 that the landed gentry represent the highest form of civilisation. The way in which the narrator focalises through Arabella in Ch. 26 serves to highlight her own arrogance; the doctor’s lèse majesté is her perception; Trollope’s ironic narrative voice ensures his readers are on Thorne’s side. The class struggle represented in Dr Thorne is more nuanced and complicated than the simple, polar struggle between good and evil that he appeared to present at the novel’s start.

This post is becoming too long, so I’ll stop there, and continue next time with the portrayal of the flawed hero and not-so-awful villains, and examine this notion of ‘human quality’ further.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 1: narrative voice

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne. Oxford World’s Classics, 1994. First published 1858: the third of the ‘Barsetshire Chronicles’.

Trollope’s fiction has often been dismissed as commonplace, conventional and pedestrian, from his own Victorian period to Leavis and after, of ‘low literary worth’ (as David Skilton points out in this OWC edition Introduction). As Henry James sniffily suggested, ‘With Trollope we are always safe’; sinking into one of his romantic comedies of manners is like ‘sinking into a gentle slumber’; he provides ‘a complete appreciation of the usual’. Virginia Woolf wrote that he provides ‘assurance’: a Valium comfort-novelist who provides a cosy, undemanding warmth. This is unfair. After my uncertain start with The Warden and the superior second Barsetshire Chronicle, Barchester Towers, (links to posts here) I’ve come to value his unconventional, idiosyncratic ironic narrative approach, his slippery,  sometimes over-reactionary moral stance, and the duality/complexity of narrative voice and approach. This might take a few posts to show what I mean.

I’ll start with that narrative voice – more subtle in its intrusions and comments than in the first two in the series, and therefore more insidiously suggestive of that unconventional, disruptive, maybe even pre-modernist inconclusiveness, that draws attention to the artificiality of the novel’s own structural and generic nature in order to justify focusing on richness of characterisation and seriousness of theme.

Trollope Thorne cover

Charity shop price sticker damaged the cover when I peeled it off. It’s a detail from a painting by Richard Redgrave, ‘The Walk from the Church’, 1846

The novel’s first three chapters consist of complicated, and frankly rather tedious introductory back-story, in which the narrator begins by ironically insisting that handsome young gentleman Frank Gresham, heir to the large but financially precarious country estate that his father has dissipated, is not the hero of ‘our tale’. That place is occupied by ‘the village doctor’ – an unusual choice; there aren’t many Victorian fictional heroes from the medical world. Like Dr Watson, they tend to be bit-part players. Those who prefer, our knowingly genial narrator concedes, may choose to favour callow Frank; but as far as this narrator is concerned, Frank serves as window-dressing:

It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshambury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger’.

This ambivalent refusal to admire the genre to which he’s required to conform signals its real focus. He goes on to extol Frank’s creakily stereotypical credentials for this role as romantic pseudo-hero: vigour, good looks, and a ‘pleasant, aristocratic, dangerous curl of the upper lip which can equally express good humour or scorn’. But Trollope is just going through the motions of starting a romantic novel with its familiar ‘inheritance plot’. As EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, ‘oh dear, yes’, the novel must tell a story. That’s Trollope’s view, too. He tells his story, but as early as p. 7 has indicated there’s a happy ending. He deliberately disrupts the mystery element of the plot of this sprawling 600-page triple-decker by giving the game away at the outset. He’s not terribly interested in whether the vapid young heroine, illegitimate and therefore a social pariah, not a suitable match for a young scion of the gentry who must ‘marry money’ to save the family estate, will become a wealthy heiress and enable the lovers to marry and save the family estate (who cares?). Trollope knows his readers expect a teasing plot of that kind, so with grudging irony provides it. But don’t expect him to relish the task; his disdain is palpable. His real interest lies elsewhere.

This is not the conventional Victorian approach to writing the ‘cosy’ realist novel his detractors accuse him of, even the popular light comedy kind; Trollope is more concerned with exploring (admittedly with limited subversive intentions) the social conditions and tensions in his changing, doubt-filled, unstable world of landed gentry and rising middle classes; I’ll consider this aspect in another post. Back to that disruptive narrative voice:

As Dr Thorne is our hero – or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to my readers – and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner.

Really? He knows this is not ‘necessary’. Trollope chooses to get this tedious, predictable plot and character-introduction (preamble to the ‘necessary’ inheritance plot) stuff out of the way so that he can return to his more pressing themes and interesting characters. To counteract the potential tedium he makes a joke of it by foregrounding that shift of possessive pronouns from the grandly inclusive ‘our’ to more personal ‘my’ (ironic echoes perhaps of Jane Austen’s proprietary ‘my Fanny’ in Mansfield Park), thus highlighting the relative frivolity of this conventional aspect of the narrative, and thereby implicitly accusing the superficial romance-loving reader of demanding such undemanding material. This is neatly done, for like all the best ironic-satiric humour, it’s incontestable by the accused reader who demands her/his page-turner and pining lovers. Trollope rolls his eyes and provides that plot, but signposts his (not entirely sincere) distaste for such dross:

I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognized by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages: but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise…This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling – that, indeed is very doubtful.

I’ve quoted most of this opening to Ch. 2 so you can savour that double-edged self-deprecation, deployed here with feigned ingenuous artlessness that wittily draws attention to its rhetorical artfulness.

Near the end of these ‘dull chapters’ he makes another such joke, by saying he needs to say ‘[a] few words more’ about ‘Miss Mary’ before ‘we rush into our story’ (back to that inclusive ‘we’ again; again he makes a show of suggesting he’s got the reader back on narrative board) with an audaciously inappropriate, romance-deflating metaphor:

…the crust will then have been broken, and the pie will be open to the guests.

Those who want the meaty innards of the suspense-filled rom-com ‘pie’ will just have to put up with the dry, crusty serious stuff. The joke isn’t on the posing-as-humble-and-inept-jobbing author, but on the low-brow reader who demands instant gratification.

He used a similar ironic narrative technique to delightful comic effect in Barchester Towers when he reassured his worried readers early on that Eleanor wasn’t going to marry any of the awful suitors.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. First published 1950

Belinda Bede has loved the pompous, indolent Archdeacon of her local church, Henry Hoccleve, whom she first knew when they were undergraduates, for thirty years. But he married a bishop’s daughter, the spiky and rather scary Agatha. When a new young curate moves into the parish, Belinda’s sister Harriet adopts her customary mode of girlish devotion – ‘she was especially given to cherishing young clergymen’despite being, like Belinda, in her mid-fifties.

In ch. 6 Belinda calls on the Hoccleves in the vicarage, ostensibly to see Agatha, but of course this screens her sublimated passion for Henry.

Pym Gazelle coverA typical Pym scene has been set up: the good but dowdy woman’s unrequited love for a feckless, selfish man is only dimly perceived or appreciated by him. It’s a scene full of female poignant longing and male preening, treated with a delicious light comic touch by Pym – but there’s Pity and Fear present, ‘like Aristotle’s Poetics’, as Belinda thinks in a different context of a visit by a woman of dubious social status.

She finds Agatha ‘in the drawing-room, mending the Archdeacon’s socks’. It’s a novel in which one of women’s most successful romantic overtures involves making or darning socks – the most intimate scene between Belinda and Henry occurs when his wife is away and Belinda notices one of his socks has a hole; she promptly takes out her needle and darns it, his foot in her lap, her heart racing. He remains, of course, oblivious. Later she wonders if she might dare to up the stakes and knit him a pullover – but decides, like her timorous male counterpart Prufrock, that this would be ‘too dangerous’.

Their conversation turns to the new curate, Edgar Donne (most of the characters are named after the pre-modern English poets – more on that shortly). On hearing Agatha hint that Henry ‘was well, considering everything’, Belinda is bemused.

Considering what? Belinda wondered, and ventured to remark that men were really much more difficult to please than women, who bore their burdens without complaining.

I’ve written now about several of Barbara Pym’s novels (list of links at the end), so shan’t go into detail about this one. It has all her usual preoccupations: spinsters with hopeless passions for even more hopeless men, often ‘high’ clergymen, leading to flirtations and obsessions; sisters or female friends either supporting or undermining each other; village fêtes; references to English poets. (On this last topic I’d recommend the essay by Lotus Snow, ‘Literary Allusions in the Novels’ in Dale Salwak, ed., The Life and Work of BP (1987)).

The epigraph to this novel indicates its theme: it’s from a poem by a minor poet , Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), ‘Oh, something to love!’ – ‘some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove/Something to love, oh, something to love!’ That’s all that these sisters want – though they tend to ignore eligible men and set their hearts on the unattainable ones.

Some samples of Pym’s delightful comic style: here on p. 1 Belinda says to her sister, after one of Henry’s more portentous sermons, sprinkled with obscure poetic quotations – he’s addicted to showy references to Gray, Young, etc.:

‘If only we could get back some of the fervour and eloquence of the seventeenth century in the pulpit today’…

‘Oh, we don’t want that kind of thing here,’ Harriet had said in her downright way, for she had long ago given up all intellectual pursuits, while Belinda, who had been considered the clever one, still retained some smattering of the culture acquired in her college days.

 

So much is revealed about these two women here; their suppressed longings, discordant views on what would fulfil them; an oversensitive appreciation of what’s right. That emphatic ‘here’ is priceless. Unlike Henry, who parades his literary learning to show off, Belinda – like her counterparts in many other Pym novels – finds ‘solace in the love poems of lesser seventeenth century poets’. And here’s Belinda again:

Belinda, having loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and not having found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning (p. 11)

Later we’re told much the same about this ‘hopeless passion’; she felt that ‘no spinster of her age and respectability could possibly have such a thing for an archdeacon’:

The fierce flame had died down, but the fire was still glowing brightly [a quotation from Thomas Carew with a similar image follows] How much more one appreciated our great literature if one loved, thought Belinda, especially if the love were unrequited!

Pym has a lot of fun with clothes again, using them as an index of confidence, frivolity or staidness: flamboyant Harriet, for example, appears at one point

radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body.

Belinda tends to favour unflattering green (which makes her complexion look yellow), or for gardening, galoshes and a raincoat, or sensible shoes, ‘a crêpe de Chine dress and coatee.’ I have no idea what a coatee is, but know for sure that it’s exactly what Belinda would wear. Henry’s chic wife Agatha, on the other hand, looks ‘very elegant in dark red, with a fur coat and wide-brimmed hat’ at a wedding near the end; she’s ‘poised and well-dressed’ – ‘It was Belinda Bede who was the pathetic one’.

If you’ve not read Barbara Pym before I’d suggest this is a good place to start, being her first novel. It’s not as sharp or as tightly written as the later ones, but still highly entertaining. A good companion for the Trollope ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’ I’m working through; he deals with many of the same themes, but far less succinctly.

‘We really ought to love one another’, thinks Belinda at one point; ‘it was a pity it was often so difficult.’

Other Pym posts:

Quartet in Autumn

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puccinian love is merciless: Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart. QC Fiction (an imprint of Baraka Books). Paperback. Published 1 July, 2018. First published in French as La Fiancée américaine by Marchand de feuilles. Translated by Peter McCambridge

On the first page of Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart we learn that

everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.

All the Lamontagne men must marry a woman called Madeleine: the penitent sinner-saint is the icon of the narrative, incarnated several times across the generations, as the name passes down the family’s female line.

The setting is a real town on the St Lawrence River’s south bank in Quebec province. The novel is full of tall tales, anecdotes and stories within stories. It’s a long book – over 600 pages – but never flags, largely because of Dupont’s extraordinary panache in story-telling. All of his characters are full of incident-packed stories of varying authenticity, and they delight in sharing them with each other, often in epistolary form, which adds another potential level of partiality. As Magdalena in Berlin tells the Canadian, Gabriel Lamontagne:

“Canadians love stories. If they didn’t tell them, there wouldn’t be a Canada today.”

A prominent feature is its intertextual, synaesthetic relationship to music, as its title in English suggests; Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’. This is a novel that reinterprets, deconstructs and reassembles Tosca (jealousy; obsessive, transgressive passion; suicide), and Puccini’s opera is a leitmotif in the narrative: ‘while ordinary love is cruel, Puccinian love is merciless,’ one character comments near the end.

Other musical works weave in and out of the narrative, from Schubert songs (one is said to be ‘for the cold of heart’) to hymns in church. It’s a novel that engages all the reader’s senses, in a way I can’t recall experiencing before in a literary work, though the epiphanic, transformative, almost mystical influence of heard, performed or imagined music on central characters calls to mind the impact of a lovesong overheard by Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart coverJust as in music, especially opera, there are recurring motifs and themes (foregrounding the way characters replicate or defy their forebears’ personality traits – a postmodern spin on Zola, perhaps): birthmarks in the shape of a bass clef (hence the image on the cover); a painting of the Death (or Entombment) of the Virgin; teal-coloured eyes (many of the Lamontagne family have them, and they’re mesmeric, ‘achingly beautiful’); a lost gold cross fatefully inscribed with its owner’s initials; anorexic opera singers; sugar as a murder weapon; arrows that find unaimed-for targets across the space of continents and time.

Names of people and places reappear in different languages as significant echoes, for language is a medium of communication and separation: Magdalena Berg in Berlin is a German equivalent of Canadian Madeleine Lamontagne; Montreal is Königsberg. An aphorism from Hannah Arendt about victims and executioners acts as a summary of 20C horrors, and as a haunting refrain to this novel. Dupont is too subtle and innovative a writer just to iterate such symmetries for the sake of pleasing design; each recurrence resonates in a cunningly different way, wrong-footing and intriguing the reader, and springing further surprises. He’s a consummate, exuberant storyteller who, like all the great ones, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Borges, employs symbolic, traditional stories to tell profound truths about the human condition.

Dupont has been called a magical realist; I prefer to think of him as an illusionist – which is, after all, what all artists are. So there’s ‘A dead woman acting as a welcoming committee for a funeral home’: old Ma Lamontagne, ‘the grandmother who just won’t die’, but who died in 1933, just as Hitler became Chancellor (the novel is punctuated by momentous historical events). She continues to function for several more decades, until she leaves to join a community of nuns of equally liminal mortality. In the world of this novel this ‘living death’ is no stranger than anything else that’s narrated here or in any work of fiction. It’s a story with its own internal logic. ‘Who better to reassure a grieving family than someone who had passed to the other side herself?’ our narrator blithely, ingenuously asks – and this seems perfectly reasonable.

It’s invidious to try to summarise the plot: it spans much of the twentieth century, and takes in the traumas of two world wars: Dachau, the Russian incursion into Nazi East Prussia and Germany and the exodus and desperate plight of refugees ahead of them; the modern era of fast-food restaurants and TV celebrity journalists. It’s set in Quebec province, New York City, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere, for each character is on a quest away from the tedium of home in search of fulfilment, and many of them need to find each other to answer their existential questions. The final scenes round things off in ways that take the breath away, and show that every sentence that’s filled the previous 600 pages is an essential, meticulously placed element in the overall structure.

I’ll finish by showing that Dupont isn’t just a novelist who enthrals with narrative virtuosity (which he does); he turns out some beautiful prose; this is Solange, who’s secretly in love with her neighbour, Madeleine, the little girl at the novel’s opening now grown up – their story is at the heart of the novel – and they’re waiting to change buses en route from Canada to New York where Madeleine intends to abort the child whose father’s identity is one of the many mysteries of the novel. Madeleine has confided to her friend that she’s tired and scared; asked what of, she replies: ‘“Of finding myself all alone without you.”’

Upon hearing those words, Solange felt the bones in her ribcage open and a vibration that first stirred in her perineum ran up right through her, rocking her very foundations and rising up heavenward and through her lungs, pharynx, vocal cords, and nasal cavities to leave the back of her head trembling. The sound she produced was pure and clear, carried forth by the words “I will never leave you,” which resounded through the bus station the way the song of an angel will one day burst forth into the world God promised to his followers. It could well have been the moment, in all her life, that Solange was at her most lucid, her most beautiful too.

This novel warms the heart.

I can’t finish without a word of praise to the translator. Peter McCambridge has produced that rarity — a translation that doesn’t sound like one.

 Thanks to the publishers for sending an ARC.

QC Fiction’s first publication was Dupont’s 2016 novel Life in the Court of Matane, reviewed by Joseph Schreiber at Numéro Cinq (now sadly defunct, but archive materials are still accessible).

Other QC titles I’ve discussed before are:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

The story collection I Never Talk About It: posts here and here

Mélissa Verreault, Behind the Eyes We Meet

Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.

Rebecca West, Harriet Hume

I read somewhere that this would be an ideal companion to May Sinclair’s salutary The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (I wrote about it here). Subtitled ‘A London Fantasy’, Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume (first published 1929) has some of the qualities of that novel (apart from the same name of the protagonists): fable, fairytale, allegory of how a life could or should be lived. The spiritual-supernatural elements are similar to those in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (posted about here) – especially as the eponymous Harriet is endowed with qualities and ‘occult gifts’ that cause her to be likened at times to an angel, and at others to a ‘damnable’ or  ‘lying witch’. She has ‘burgled the mind’ of her young lover, Arnold Condorex, enabling her to read his thoughts and predict his future actions. This both attracts and alarms him.

Harriet Hume cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’, by Vanessa Bell

He abandons her after their idyllic post-coital first chapter because she’s a poor concert pianist who, like him, has no ‘family or fortune’. He’s ambitious, determined to use his skills of ‘negotiation’ (i.e. treachery, duplicity, cunning and ruthlessness) to ‘rise’ in the world – he has a fatal inferiority complex.

Of course, Harriet is able to read all these ignoble thoughts. She tries to warn him against this single-minded, selfish course of action, but she also knows it’s futile: he’s doomed. ‘Advancement’ to him is what music is for her.

So in several subsequent meetings over subsequent years we see him gradually acquire the trappings of power and worldly success he craved: a grand house, servants, ostentatious wealth, a title, political power. On each meeting he finds Harriet bewitching, enchanting – and terrifying. She’s like his bad conscience. Yet she never importunes him. Variously described as like a doll or indolent cat, she has a ‘face almost insipid with compliancy’; not the most prepossessing oracle

Arnold’s downward moral and spiritual trajectory accompanies his mundane rise. In a final, bizarrely fantastic scene he enters another zone of being where he and Harriet can commune on a different level, watched by two comic policemen. Suicide or murder are involved.

So what’s this fantasy or fable about? As Victoria Glendinning suggests in her Introduction, it’s perhaps the ‘opposites’ with which Arnold becomes increasingly obsessed that drive him and Harriet: the male and female principles, perhaps. Yin and yang. Or the public, status-conscious versus the private and intimate, emotional life. Political chicanery v. art (especially music – a key feature in much of West’s other fiction).

He marries a woman for her wealth and rank, then grows to despise her. The moral here is clearly to be careful what you wish for. His ultimate failure, he comes to realise, wasn’t Harriet’s fault:

[I] have contrived my own ruin by my own qualities.

Unfortunately such portentous themes are less than engagingly narrated. The message at times comes across as a blend of Jiminy Cricket and a fortune cookie motto. There’s some of the digressive supernatural stuff about the changeability of matter that is seen in other novels by Rebecca West (poltergeists, etc.) – Arnold sees by the end that Harriet simply shapes ‘the random elements of our existence into coherent patterns’. Obviously.

But my main difficulty was with the prose style. It’s so florid, poetic and mannered as to make the narrative turgid at times – despite occasional flights of beauty. Here’s a random example of what looks almost like blank verse; Harriet is addressing Arnold, coming as close as she ever does to admonishing him for the ambition that has led him into criminality:

“Oh, Arnold! This is the midnight of your destiny. Bit all your principles and motives doff their masks and sever all connection with this scheme!”

Arnold has an odd habit of referring to Harriet – to her face or to himself, as a ‘little trollop’, ‘slut’ or – in Shakespearean mode – ‘jade’. Not an endearing quality.

I wrote about Rebecca West’s ‘Aubrey trilogy’ and The Return of the Soldier in various previous posts, link here. They’re all, to my mind, much better than this curiosity.

 

Bristol visit

Last weekend Mrs TD and I spent in Bristol, where I’d been an undergraduate many years ago. Our hotel was in the city centre, next to the cathedral, so on our first morning, Saturday, we went inside. To my shame I don’t think in my three years there as a young man I ever entered it.

Bristol cathedral

The rose window in the west end of the nave

It was founded as an Augustinian Abbey in the twelfth century, and traces of this original building can be seen today. There’s a fine Chapter House with intricately carved walls.

The east end, according to the guide leaflet a kind lady gave me, is one of the world’s finest examples of a medieval ‘hall church’: the vaulted ceilings in the nave, choir and aisles are all the same height, creating a lofty, light space with a series of elegant arches.

Henry VIII began to dissolve the monastic houses in 1532 for reasons too well known to go into here, and the abbey church became a cathedral in 1542, but the incomplete nave wasn’t finished until the 1860s.

The altar

The altar

 

As a medievalist I was particularly interested in the carvings in the side chapels, dating from the 13C, and the tombs of the abbots, 15-16C.

Abbot's tomb

Abbot’s tomb

Abbot's tomb with decorative head

 

 

 

 

 

Abbot's tomb

Abbot's tomb with dog

Abbot’s dog lies curled at his feet. Not a sign that he’s been on a crusade.

I liked the touches of decoration around the peacefully reposing figures of the abbots: peasant-like heads, solicitous cherubs straining like Lilliputians to levitate the giant figure; a snoozing dog…

There’s a lovely tranquil garden outside, where pigeons pick among ancient tombs and flower beds.

We left to walk up Park Street, now unrecognisable from how it was in my days there: no George’s bookshop or student-thronged tearoom whose name I forget.

I did go in a charity shop and bought three books: more on that another time.

Then into Clifton and a pilgrimage to my former flat. I’d thought last time I was there a few years ago the whole terrace had been gentrified, but this time I looked more closely, and my building is as shabbily elegant as it was when I lived there. Even my top floor window looked to have the same  sash window that needed propping open with a piece of wood.

We had no bathroom or hot water; I’d  go to the SU building round the corner to shower and swim.

I felt a hankering to live there again, but a look in estate agents’ windows and at websites confirmed that it’s way out of my price range.

But it’s good to revisit these places that are so full of memories.

 

 

 

Detail of a head

Detail of a head of a woman in the archway above a tomb

Student flat

I lived here for two years on the top floor.

 

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers – conclusion. Power games

My second piece on Trollope’s Barchester Towers elicited a comment from Karen that suggested she now felt less inclined to read it; maybe it was the way I indicated Trollope is uncharitable in his depiction of the vapid non-heroine, Eleanor Bold. I do hope she isn’t ultimately deterred from reading it, for it provides many pleasures – and Trollope has some more rounded, spirited women characters to enjoy.

Mrs Proudie, the wife of the new bishop, it has to be said, is also not very flatteringly portrayed. She ‘rules’ her husband, is ‘despotic’, a ‘virago’, even prompting one of those quasi-ironic metafictional narrative intrusions that are a feature of Trollope’s technique:

Mrs Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour. It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.

That last role is allotted to her – but, he adds, ‘she was not all devil’:

There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.

She shows compassion in this scene with a desperate petitioner for her assistance. Trollope seems to have learnt some lessons from The Warden, where he tended to castigate just about every character’s moral position except the eponym, Harding, thus weakening the effect of the novel. Here he shows more lassitude towards his villains, as we saw in my discussion of his portrait of Dr Grantly.

These narrative intrusions serve to dilute the venom of his narrative, and to pull aside the curtain on his drama (there’s a lot of theatrical imagery in the novel) to show how it all works – or at least to pretend to. In fact he’s drawing our attention to features of the average novel which he disdains. He does this in ch. 15 when he refuses to create ‘mystery’ in the drama of Eleanor’s love interest, telling us at this early stage exactly which of her various suitors she will not marry. He claims to abhor such ‘delightful horrors’ as the revelation with a flourish in the final chapter of the solution to the mystery – this kind of trick is just ‘deceit’. Instead:

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.

He doesn’t want to make his readers ‘dupes’ of such teasing plots in which all depends on the big reveal in the denouement, leaving the ‘story’ with little ‘interest’, for ‘the part of a dupe is never dignified.’

As always in these metafictional asides, this is wittily ambivalent. While Trollope does aspire to create a novel that’s more than just ‘sensation’ or suspense-filled, he’s really referring to the love interest that comedies are generically required to dramatise. He’s much more interested in another aspect of the social scheme he’s anatomising in these chronicles. Power. Mrs Proudie wants to dominate her husband and his diocese.

But it’s the male ‘devil’ that’s the best part of the novel: Slope.

Obadiah Slope is the oleaginous chaplain to the new bishop, a protégé of the formidable Mrs Proudie. He’s another Uriah Heep, even down to the slimy handshake and ‘greasy’ manners. She sees in him a useful tool for converting what she sees as the high church idolatry of Barchester into their own austere low church mode – a struggle that was very much a feature of contemporary ecclesiastical life.

Neither of them is particularly devout. The narrator once again makes Slope’s real motivation perfectly clear:

He wanted a wife, and he wanted money, but he wanted power more than either. He had fully realised the fact that he must come to blows with Mrs Proudie.

He’s ambitious, and has no intention of simply playing ‘factotum’ to a ‘woman-prelate’. Theirs becomes one of the major power struggles in a novel full of them: ‘Either he or Mrs Proudie must go to the wall.’ This is the kind of conflict that is Trollope’s true zone of interest, highlighted by the prevalent military or pugilistic imagery.

Let’s end with another attempt to persuade Karen that this is a novel well worth reading. Not all of Trollope’s women characters are shallow, lacking in judgement or excessively masculine. Madeline Neroni, née Stanhope, second child of the cathedral prebendary, is a woman of ‘surpassing beauty’ and a wickedly gifted sexual predator. In Italy she’d chosen a husband badly, ending up crippled, possibly by him, and leaving him to return to her family.

She had become famous for adventures in which her character was just not lost, and had destroyed the hearts of a dozen cavaliers without once being touched in her own.

Duels fought over her cause her ‘pleasurable excitement’. In a wonderful scene at a fête champêtre at a country house she ensnares not just the drooling Slope, but also the squire of the estate, Mr Thorne, and the intellectual but emotionally myopic cleric Arabin. She has that ‘incomprehensible’ instinct of such women to perceive how women are perceived by men, and vice versa. Consequently she detects where Arabin’s affections truly lie – and takes pity on him and the lady whom he would otherwise be too romantically inept to win:

Though heartless, the Stanhopes were not selfish.

So she engages her ‘peculiar female propensities’ to ‘entrap’ Arabin ‘into her net.’ She had not taken much pleasure in the ‘chase’ for Mr Thorne: he was, like pheasants, too easy to pick off, and ‘not…worth the shooting’; he’s just worth ‘bagging for family uses.’ This is not the malicious characterisation that we saw with Mrs Proudie or Eleanor – there’s wit and animated narrative interest and investment in these scenes; this woman is attractive because she’s formidable and beautiful. She snares men because she can, because they’re generally weak, and because she enjoys it as her favourite pastime – ‘she has little else to amuse her’. But she has, like Mrs Proudie, a vestige of a heart.

This engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a strong but selfish character is seen beautifully in the earlier scene when she routs the bullying local aristocrat, Lady de Courcy. When this harridan stares rudely through her lorgnette at the beautiful Signora on her sofa, surrounded by fawning men,

The occupant in return stared hard at the countess.

The countess isn’t used to this: only royals, dukes and the ‘marquesal’ usually dare hold her gaze like that:

But she had now to do with one who cared little for countesses. It was, one may say, impossible for mortal man or woman to abash Madeline Neroni. She opened her large bright lustrous eyes wider and wider, till she seemed to be all eyes. She gazed up into the lady’s face, not as though she did it with an effort, but as if she delighted in doing it. She used no glass to assist her effrontery, and needed none. The faintest possible smile of derision played around her mouth, and her nostrils were slightly dilated, as if in sure anticipation of her triumph.

That ‘one may say’ is priceless. The countess ‘had not a chance with her.’ She makes a humiliated, enraged retreat.

This novel is worth reading for the gloriously selfish character of Madeline alone – she makes Becky Sharp look like a nun. She makes mincemeat of the odious Slope, too, so she can’t be all bad.