Men are boring and irritating: Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence

Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19531

There’s a particularly English kind of novel in which quietly ironic humour is the dominant tone. The irony in Jane and Prudence serves to create a critical view of a certain kind of middle class set of people, mostly in the country, but some in the city of London, whose idiosyncracies, defects and obsessions act as an index of a whole swathe of middle England in the post-war period in which the novel is set.

The Jane of the title is the 41-year-old wife of a vicar. As the novel opens she is attending a reunion of the alumnae of the Oxford college at which she had been a tutor to Prudence Bates, 29, an age when spinsterhood is considered in danger of shifting into old maidishness.

This is a novel of contrasts which are mostly shown up by a close attention to appearances and personal traits, and in the fact that neither woman feels she has fulfilled her potential as an Oxford graduate in a world where such accomplishment is not considered a useful asset in a woman.

Jane is dowdily dressed, showing little care for how she looks – her ‘old tweed coat’, we learn, looks like the kind ‘one might have used for feeding the chickens in’, and the country vicarage she and her husband Nicholas move to at the start of the novel is furnished frugally and shabbily. The curtains don’t quite meet in the middle. She’s a ‘great novel reader, perhaps too much for a vicar’s wife’, and her academic interest in the poetry of the 17C raises little interest in her new environment. She hardly knows where the kitchen is, and is ‘indifferent…to domestic arrangements’.

B Pym, Jane and Prudence Prudence wears elegant, sophisticated clothes, and furnishes her fashionable London flat in a chic Regency style. She’s usually involved in short-lived love affairs, mostly with totally unsuitable men. As with Jane Austen, there’s an assumption that a single woman must be in search of a suitable husband as the only possible goal in life in this skewed, patriarchal society.

Jane’s marriage has lost its original romance, and is summed up in her mind by her husband’s ‘mild, kindly looks and spectacles’. Both women are, in their own ways, lost and unfulfilled, and it’s this edge of frustration and disappointment that prevents the novel from descending into twee rom-com. There’s a bleakness about Pym’s portrayal of mid-20C middle class England.

This is seen most poignantly in the depiction of Jessie Morrow, a ‘little brown woman’ and paid companion and distant relative to an elderly battleaxe, Miss Doggett. These two also feature in Crampton Hodnett, which I wrote about recently HERE. Jessie, even more frumpishly dressed than Jane, is treated like a servant by her condescending employer – she is more of a ‘sparring partner’ than companion, as Jessie shrewdly points out. Although she has learned to remain invisible, she has hidden depths of intelligence and cunning. These emerge when she succeeds in snaring the local lothario, a preening, self-obsessed and louche widower called Fabian Driver, who lives next door, and snatching him out of the elegant arms of Prudence. To do so she wears one of his late wife’s dresses, which she had pilfered, and in so doing turns his fickle head.

It’s difficult to convey the pleasures of this novel in just a short space. Every page has little moments of delightful humour laced with that bleakness I mentioned earlier. Here’s a random example from early on: Jane has entered her husband’s new church for the first time and sees it being prepared by the fussy church ladies for Harvest Thanksgiving (not ‘Festival’, she’s sniffily informed by one of them, Miss Doggett, in her default tyrant mode; ‘festival’ sounds much too pagan for her) . Jane knows she’s going to seem inadequate and inferior to them in comparison with her more socially skilled and compliant predecessor.

She ill-advisedly expresses a wish to them that they will sing ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’ during the service:

‘It is such a fine hymn. In many ways one dislikes Milton, of course; his treatment of women was not all that it should have been.’

‘Well, they did not have quite the same standards in the old days,’ said Miss Doggett, frowning. ‘Of course we shall have the usual harvest hymns, I imagine. We plough the fields and scatter,’ she declared in a firm tone, almost challenging anyone to deny her.

This is typical of the way in which Pym narrates. Jane, an admirer of the Metaphysicals, would find Milton too sober and misogynistic; Miss Doggett, as her name implies, holds unbending, unreconstructed views about the place of women in society, and her dogmatic stance reveals her as representative of a view widely held at the time, and unfortunately still found today. The clash is silent but telling.

For all her scattiness and eccentricity, Jane holds views more consistent with Pym’s own, the reader is led to believe in such scenes, than those of the superficially more worldly Prudence, whose disastrous romances are a symptom of her incapacity for judgement when it comes to men, as a consequence of a lack of strength of character – her attractive looks and dress simply mask her weaknesses.

Some aspects of the novel are perhaps outmoded: there’s a great deal of knowing witticism about the various modes of religious faith, from High Church and Catholicism to chapel, for example. But these are offset by the barbed ironies throughout, especially those to do with marriage and sex.

This is Jane reflecting on Fabian’s dumping of her friend Prudence in favour of the less glamorous, ‘mousy’ Jessie – whom Pym has repeatedly shown to be a far more interesting character, a contrast to which Jane remains oblivious, being more inclined to interpret poetry than the human heart.

Feeling guilty at the part she’d played, like Austen’s Emma, in bringing her friend together with treacherous, shallow, handsome Fabian, she consoles herself with the thoughts that, first, at least Prudence hadn’t got pregnant, and second, that ‘it was obvious that at times [Prudence] found him both boring and irritating’. The internal monologue that follows is characteristic of Pym’s narrative poise, as Jane begins to perceive home truths about herself and marriage reflected in Fabian’s rejection of fashionable, headstrong Prudence and preference for ostensibly dreary Jessie as a wife:

But wasn’t that what so many marriages were – finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring or irritating? …Perhaps this [i.e. Jessie] was after all what men liked to come home to, someone restful and neutral, who had no thought of changing the curtains or wallpapers? Jessie, who, for all her dim appearance, was very shrewd, had no doubt realised this. A beautiful wife would have been too much for Fabian, for one handsome person is enough in a marriage, if there is to be any beauty at all. And so often there isn’t… [Ellipses mine]

I hope I haven’t spoilt your potential enjoyment of this novel by revealing such aspects of the novel; I don’t think it’s really the denouement of the plot that is the most satisfying part of a Barbara Pym novel: it’s the journey there, and the epiphanies that ensue for her delicately delineated characters.

I”ve written about Pym’s novel Excellent Women HERE and No Fond Return of Love HERE

An ebon stick: Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 1961 (before they started the grey covers; this one has a cover design by George Him). First published 1911

Beerbohm (1872-1956) wrote in a preliminary Note to this edition, with characteristically arch indignation, that responses to the novel on first publication wrongly took it to be:

intended as a satire on such things as the herd instinct, as feminine coquetry, as snobbishness, even as legerdemain; whereas I myself had supposed it was just a fantasy; and as such, I think, it should be regarded by others.

It’s never safe to trust such authorial protestations, especially from ‘the incomparable Max’ (as Shaw called him; ‘Compare me, compare me’, Max responded – one of his better witticisms). And he goes on to say that all fantasy should ‘have a solid basis in reality’. Zuleika Dobson portrays Edwardian Oxford University life with what I take to be an accurate eye (Beerbohm was at Merton, but never completed his degree: he’s not a great completer, which is maybe why he never produced the great full-length literary work his contemporaries expected and longed for from him).

Zuleika DobsonAlthough published in 1911, this novel was several years in the writing, and reflects Max’s early period obsessions: the Aesthetic Movement – he wrote for the Yellow Book, working with the likes of Wilde and Beardsley. – and the Classics; the novel is full of portentous quotations from and allusions to Greek and Latin literature and myth. This gives it part of the ostentatious, pompous tone that I found, frankly, repellent (and I won’t get started on the mass suicide plot). A recurring choral note referring to the ‘grim busts of the Roman Emperors’ staring down on the drama unfolding below them is another jarring note for me.

Here’s an example of that florid, overwritten ‘poetic’ style, which starts on page 1, and carries on relentlessly throughout; this is from the second paragraph of the novel. The scene is Oxford railway station, where the train bearing the eponymous heroine is just arriving:

At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas [ie Merton]. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric.

I’ll stop there; the prose is so purple I can only take it in small doses. Max, in this narrative dandy persona, adores inverted syntactical structures, preferring to use fronted adverbials, delayed verbs, and miniature inversions embedded in these larger ones (‘stood he’; why not ‘he stood’?!).

Then there’s the overwrought vocabulary, that arcane, aureate diction; Max is striving too hard for comic-poetic exuberance: ‘an ebon pillar’. OK, it’s meant to be funny. It isn’t. ‘Garb’ isn’t funnier or cleverer than the plainer alternative.

The paragraph goes on in similar inflated style:

Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied.

This is the tortuous, self-consciously rhetorical style suitable for a Roman orator, not a comic novel – that it was published in 1911 doesn’t excuse it. This is the style that was to influence early Evelyn Waugh, probably Wodehouse, maybe others (early Huxley, perhaps). So he has a lot to answer for. At least they saw the light and went on to better things (perhaps not PGW, who found his niche and stuck in it, sensibly).

The description goes on:

He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.

Ah, that’s why he’s an ‘ebon pillar’. Still not funny. But that last sentence is good – and funny. But even then it manages to turn the scene into a painting. It’s intended to be ironic, this juxtaposition of the foppish ‘aesthetic’ with the mundane reality of an old man on a station platform, meeting his granddaughter. I don’t see the point.

And that’s Max. Ninety per cent overblown, aesthetic posturing, then a killer line in demotic, plain, brilliant English.

The next paragraph carries on in the same style:

Came a whistle from the distance.

What’s wrong with S-V-O?

Then comes the first of dozens of uses of the poetic-archaic ‘ere’ (not ‘before’), sometimes preceded by dud effulgences like ‘insomuch that’. Paragraph four includes ‘cynosure’ (well, here it is appropriate), and ‘Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction’. That is, Zuleika walks towards her grandfather.

Robert McCrum placed this novel at no. 40 in his list of 100 Best Novels in the Guardian in 2014. He gives a summary of the plot there, saying that it is

a brilliant Edwardian satire on Oxford life by one of English literature’s most glittering wits that now reads as something much darker and more compelling. Readers new to Max Beerbohm’s masterpiece, which is subtitled An Oxford Love Story, will find a diaphanous novel possessed of a delayed explosive charge that detonates today with surprising power.

Yes, Max writes what reviewers tend to call ‘lapidary’ prose, but as I hope my brief examination demonstrates, it’s not to my taste, over embellished. I read in another review, I forget where, that readers tend to either love or hate Max’s work. I’m in the latter group.

Oh, yes, and he’s beastly about the Americans.

One very funny passage, just to redress the balance. This Edwardian Kardashian, Zuleika, is passing the Front Quadrangle of the college, where there are some chained-up dogs:

Zuleika, of course, did not care for dogs. One has never known a good man to whom dogs were not dear; but many of the best women have no such fondness. You will find that the woman who is really kind to dogs is always one who has failed to inspire sympathy in men. For the attractive woman, dogs are mere dumb and restless brutes – possibly dangerous, certainly soulless.

She stoops down to pet this unfortunate dog as an act of coquetry, not genuine affection, to awaken envy in her male companion:

Alas, her pretty act was a failure. The bulldog cowered away from her, horrifically grimacing. This was strange. Like the majority of his breed, Corker…had been wistful to be noticed by anyone…No beggar, burglar, had ever been rebuffed by this catholic beast. But he drew the line at Zuleika.

See what Max can do when he stops the posturing? This is genuinely funny, and the first part of my quotation has an aphoristic quality worthy of Oscar. But he still can’t resist calling the dog a ‘catholic beast’; old habits die hard. That’s the kind of 18C grandiloquence that Wordsworth (at least in his younger days) tried to reform, a century before Max.

As I was in Portugal when reading this, and it was the last book I had with me, I was stuck with it. Mass suicide played for laughs, written mostly (there are a few worthy exceptions, as I’ve indicated) in a style that makes Pater look like Hemingway – no. Fortunately, there were Chekhov’s stories on my Kindle.

Let’s end with a few more pictures of the Fuzeta scenery of E. Algarve. At least it’s natural – which is impossible to say of Zuleika Dobson.

Fish market at Olhão

Fish market at Olhão

I didn’t choose my holiday reading at all successfully.

Apologies for another negative post.

 

 

 

 

Armona island

Armona island

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Rapture and cowardice: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer. Atlantic Books paperback, 2015; first published, 2014. 352 pp.

 South African writer Damon Galgut uses this title for several reasons: first, it’s the title of a novel that E.M. Forster – of whom this is a novelised biography – started in 1911, tinkered with for the next years, but left unfinished. He said this about it:

‘I had got my antithesis all right, the antithesis between the civilized man, who hopes for an Arctic Summer, and the heroic man who rides into the sea. But I had not settled what was going to happen, and that is why the novel remains a fragment. The novelist should I think always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be.’ (From Nicola Beauman’s biography, Morgan, pp. 248-49)

What does he mean by that? Well, I think it’s to do with a long, empty, bright space of time in which things could but maybe don’t get done.

So that’s perhaps the second reason for the title of Galgut’s novel: it deals mostly with the writer’s block Forster experienced between about this time, around 1912, when he embarked on his first passage to India, and 1924, when he finally published his ‘Indian novel’ – A Passage to India [APTI]; it had taken him some eleven years. It was only towards the end of that period that he was able to pick up the MS and finish it – largely, according to Galgut’s version, at the instigation of his Indian friend, Masood, to whom A Passage to India was dedicated, and of Leonard Woolf.

Galgut Arctic SummerThe other possible significance is in the emotional blankness of Forster’s life for much of this period. Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals in meticulous detail (sometimes I felt a little too much detail) with the conflicting impulses he was feeling sexually and emotionally. He longed to lose his virginity, but felt ashamed of his lustful thoughts and impulses; he also longed for intimacy, romance – love.

Galgut excels in his depiction of the ‘hateful self-righteousness’ and hypocrisy of the English middle classes; as early as page 3 Morgan (Forster was always known by his middle name) is fuming (silently) at the behaviour of his fellow passengers on board the ship that was taking them in 1912 to India – their intolerance of anyone who didn’t conform to their narrow, smug circle’s mores, which he likens to the suburban snobberies of Tunbridge Wells:

But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most…On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like half-castes, which was such a stigma. “And this young Indian man who’s on board,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? He has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”

Anyone familiar with APTI will have fun recognising these references from the Indian novel – that malicious racism, laced with complacency, homophobia and suspicion.

It was only 17 years before this voyage that Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexual activity, and much of this narrative deals with the ways in which gay men at that time had to act with extreme caution. Morgan is shocked when a fellow passenger, a young English officer named Searight, talks openly about his sexual conquests, mostly of boys or young men, in India, and shows him the long, explicit epic poem he’d written about them:

To have spoken in that way to a near-stranger, to have exposed oneself so recklessly! It hadn’t been a confession – there was no shame behind it.

Shame is something with which Morgan is intimately acquainted, and his ambivalence about his sexual inclinations conflicts with his sense of decorum and…well, constrained Englishness:

…he was not nearly so afraid of the State as he was of his mother. He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term: he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority. He himself was a solitary. At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted. One could be forgiven for believing it was a matter of talking, not doing. As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.

‘English attitudes felt foreign to him’, he feels when he hears exponents of Empire and colonialism holding forth, jingoistically.

This ambivalence, a sort of splitting of the self into a public and a private persona, is a central theme of the novel. Morgan observes Searight, for example, and sees ‘his life was broken in two: the ‘vigorous and masculine’, back-slapping hearty, ‘popular and well respected’; ‘that was one half of him – but of course there was another secret side, which Morgan had already seen.’

Later, when he’s serving with the Red Cross in Cavafy’s Alexandria during World War I, he sees a similar duality in men: ‘Night selves and day selves’: an Egyptian acquaintance who takes him to a hashish den does so as ‘a private gentleman in the evening’, but then as ‘a member of the administration by day’ he reports the proprietor to the authorities and he is deported, the ‘haunt of vice’ closed down.

Morgan spends much of the novel struggling to bridge such gaps, and to find true connection across gulfs of class, race and sexual orientation, embodied most brutally in bigoted outposts of Empire like India and Egypt.

He almost succeeds with the two loves of his life: the Indian Masood, and the young Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. He’s doomed, however, to fall for men who don’t fully reciprocate his feelings.

There are frequent references in such relationships to ‘the distance’ between them being ‘closed’, but usually it’s never completely realised, and Morgan spends (rather too much time) frustrated at his inability to find requited love, satisfy his sexual urges, and quell the feelings of shame and guilt:

To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong sometimes that it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken. Not even – not really – to Hom.

(Hom is a Cambridge friend with whom he experienced his first kiss and intimacy – but not sex. As Hom says, they can flirt with ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, but had stopped short of anything ‘carnal’ or, at that time, illegal.)

It’s a well-wrought novel, but the long sections in India and Egypt I found became repetitive and turgid, though there are some fine passages of description of place: palaces and cities, rivers and forest, and there are some colour characters and lively incident. There’s not enough humour, though, which is a shame, because Galgut shows he can be very funny (as could Forster). Here are my favourite such moments.

The first is when, shortly after that homoerotic romp, his friend Hom ‘casually’ tells Morgan he had become engaged. “To a woman?” Morgan asked stupidly.

On his first visit to India Morgan watches a Miracle Play performed by a Maharajah’s acting troupe, portraying scenes from the life of Krishna. Another friend with whom he’s travelling, Goldie (Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge don whose biography Forster would later write), is unimpressed:

“You see,” he told Morgan. “It’s as I said. Everything comes down to religion, and it’s dull, dull, dull.”

“Religion is perhaps not the only element at work here.”

“What do you mean? Oh, yes, I see…but even that part of it is dull. A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!

This comic scene has a sharp edge: this is Morgan’s central dilemma in the novel; like the poor cat i’ the adage in Macbeth, he spends much of his life aching to act upon his impulses and live life fully (as DH Lawrence imperiously urges him to, in another fine comic scene), but ‘he didn’t dare’, and lacked the confidence to do so. And when he does finally screw up the courage to make a sexual advance, he’s usually humiliated and rejected. Hom, Masood and Mohammed all married (that ignoble, ‘silly business’, as the hypocritical Hom bitterly calls it after some years of it) and settled into marital conformity, leaving him feeling bereft, solitary, marginalised. His life is largely one of emotional torment.

His life, and his writing by the end of this period of his life, is largely ‘sterile’, he’s a Prufrockian figure; near the end he overhears two women who recognise the now famous novelist in a teashop in London discussing him: ‘”His trousers are a few inches too short,”’ says one of them (‘I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’). She goes on: ‘”He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”’

At this point he catches sight of his reflection in a mirror:

The angle of the light wiped out the surrounding room, so that he seemed to be standing alone in the middle of an immense whiteness. A snowy, frozen landscape, on which the sun was nevertheless pouring down. Arctic summer: nothing moving, nothing alive, and yet the sky was open.

He contemplates several cutting ripostes, but ends, with a characteristically ‘small’ voice:

“I have loved,” he told them. “That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

The most interesting aspect of this novel is when he finds the answer to the mystery at the heart of the plot of his Indian novel, just when despair of doing so had almost crushed him:

The moment he thought it he knew that the lack of an answer was, in fact, the answer. He had circled the question for nine years, while all along the solution was almost underfoot…Dry, earnest Adela [Quested, in APTI]. All this time, she’d been in love, longing to be touched, and her longing had transmuted into violence. Imaginary or real or ghostly: let it remain mysterious. He wouldn’t explain what had happened, because he didn’t know what had happened. As a writer, he’d felt he had to provide answers, but India had reminded him that no answer would suffice.

Like Flaubert’s Mme Bovary, Adela is Morgan in his ‘driest, most sticklike’ persona.

Let me finish what has turned out, I’m afraid, to be a rather long post, with a couple more pictures of Portugal, where I read Arctic Summer. After five days Mrs TD and I caught the train down to the Algarve, and stayed ten days near Tavira, by the Ria Formosa national park, a haven for wildlife, especially birds – including flamingos.

Fuseta

The disused lifeboat station at Fuzeta, opposite our apartment, in the lagoon at low tide.

Flamingos

They were a bit far away, but those are flamingos, feeding and honking on the salt pans near Fuzeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

This is not a review of Barbara Comyns’ fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, published in 1959 (she died in 1992). I’ve written about two of her others in previous posts (links at the end), so have I think already established the nature of her highly idiosyncratic approach to narrative voice, plot and character dynamics. All tend to be at the same time naive, deceptively simple, yet also dark, tending towards a kind of surreal gothic , and skewed in their world view. Odd things are narrated as if they were everyday; the banal is often rendered extraordinary.

All I need to do to give an idea of The Vet’s Daughter, then, is to quote from its opening page.

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me,’ and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

This man possibly reappears in the penultimate page for no explicable reason, just as the encounter with the teenage vet’s daughter here simply serves to show the apparent randomness and lack of agency in her life.

Why bother to tell us about those privet hedges? Or that the ‘poor man’ is to be pitied because of his wife’s religious persuasion? How bizarre that she should liken his condition to that of a horse with kneecaps (do they wear such things? If so, why does he resemble on thus attired, rather than just a regular, naked-legged horse? Is it because they live a life of toil and drudgery? Maybe she’s projecting on to him something of her own miserable existence with her tyrannical, sadistic father. Maybe, like Stephen King, she’s establishing a suburban setting of ordered tranquillity and banality – the hedges, the railway bridge, the lamp – in order that the domestic horrors to come are all the more upsetting.

That ‘heavy rainbow’ simile is good. There is no magical crock of gold at its end, of course. Quite the opposite, as the next paragraph begins to show.

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

I entered the house. It was my home and smelt of animals, although there was no lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Although this narrating voice seems like that of a naive child, then, there’s a highly sophisticated literary sensibility at work here. That use of ‘although’, seemingly irrelevant, implies that either there is carpet – which would absorb and retain animal smells – or bare floorboards – which suggests parsimony in the head of the house. Or else the disconnectedness of the clause reflects that in her consciousness, all sense of normality and rational connection having been shattered or diminished by her father’s despotic control.

The hall’s brownness connotes a dismal, squalid colourlessness and lack of joy and love – a state that rapidly becomes frighteningly evident. The sadness of her mother’s eyes, her speechlessness, slight build, the slope of her shoulders: all demonstrate heartbreaking vulnerability in this hall of misery.

We soon learn, too, that her teeth have been knocked askew by her abusive, violent husband. He’s a monster of fairytale-ogre proportions. This is also hinted at in that closing sentence: he’s a vivisectionist’s supplier, quick to have sickly animals ‘destroyed’ – a category in which he includes his long-suffering wife and daughter.

I’m not  sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. Its bleak picture of a psychopathic husband and father, portrayed by a voice so gentle and unassuming, makes for almost unbearable reading at times.

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE

A life of one’s own. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes

I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade. [STW in a letter to her friend, David Garnett, cited in the Introduction to the VMC edition by Sarah Waters]

How galling it must have been for Sylvia Townsend Warner to hear people like her mother praise this impassioned protofeminist novel Lolly Willowes for its whimsical depiction of spinstery witchcraft in the Chilterns.

Lolly WillowesSo much has been written about the plot, I won’t précis it here. There’s a succinct account and appraisal in Robert McCrum’s recent piece in the Guardian’s ‘100 Best Novels’ series (he places Lolly Willowes at no. 52), emphasising how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution.

Sarah Waters’ introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition – the one I’ve just finished – is found online, again at the Guardian website. It gives an excellent analysis of the novel’s impassioned themes of a woman’s struggle to be free in a patriarchal world soon after WWI, when the slaughter in the trenches was still a recent memory, and women’s new-found independence was being suppressed again, as it was in the Victorian and early Edwardian period.

Waters astutely positions the novel in a literary group containing both Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The title of this post is from a quotation on p. 196, when Laura (the diminutive ‘Lolly’ – a name by which her family know her – sums up her lack of status or identity in the eyes of the world she inhabits) is conversing with her new master: Satan – the ‘Loving Huntsman’ as the novel’s subtitle calls him: a gentleman who once he’s netted his new witch’s soul, leaves her alone to revel in her liberated state [or is she in his thrall? Is she truly free even now?]:

One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either – a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day…

Instead, she argues, women become witches ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.’ This long section towards the end of the novel is one of the most powerful expressions of feminist polemic I’ve read in a work of prose fiction (Nora in A Doll’s House would understand Lolly implicitly).

Women, Lolly says to her satanic interlocutor (it’s an exchange reminiscent of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus when he first interrogates Mephistopheles), need to transcend the ‘dismal lives’ expected of them by society:

Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependant on others, and their dependance so soon becomes a nuisance…And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull…[On Sundays they are required to listen to church sermons on Sin, Grace:] All men’s things, like politics, or mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair.

What an act of wilful misreading by the author’s mother to see that as anything but a subversive call to feminist arms.

Sadly, it’s a message still relevant today.

 

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel, published in 1918 when she was 24. It’s very different from the Aubrey trilogy, which I’ve written about recently here.

The plot of the novel is simple: Chris returns from the trenches suffering from shell-shock. Its main effect is that he has forgotten everything that happened for the past 15 years – which includes getting married to Kitty, and losing their baby son.

He does remember his youthful love for a lower-class publican’s daughter, Margaret. It’s to her that he writes when he recovers physical health, and he turns to her for comfort and healing when he’s back in his former home – to the grief and consternation of Kitty and his cousin, Jenny.

It’s a short novel – just 140 pages – but carries enormous emotional weight. The tension that builds towards the terrible conclusion is almost unbearable.

It’s not as polished in style as the later novels by Rebecca West, and in places it’s overwritten and cumbersome; but it’s still a poised and subtle work of fiction.

I’ll have to be brief, as I’m going elsewhere soon, so I’ll focus on just one scene. It’s the moment when Margaret arrives at Kitty and Jenny’s beautiful country house to tell the women that Chris has been wounded in action. The gulf in class difference is palpable, and here it’s through clothes that the narrator (the voice is Jenny’s, who is surely in love with Chris herself, hence her animosity towards this woman) conveys her sense of social superiority and disdain:

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty’s prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes whose sticky straw had but lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. [How could Jenny possibly know that?!] She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush braid with a seamed red hand which looked even more horrible when she raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered and muttered, ‘Let’s get this over,’ and ran down the stairs.

The Return of the Soldier: Virago Modern Classics. Afterword by Sadie Jones

Curious creatures. Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool. Penguin Modern Classics, 1963; first published 1936

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool This early PMC edition has one of those lovely two-tone covers (this one drawn by R.A. Glendening) and the number on the spine (1891), with the distinctive grey bands of the early Modern Classics series.

Unfortunately the novel (the only one Connolly wrote; he produced a large body of journalism, literary reviews, memoirs, etc.) doesn’t live up to the design. It has some pleasing linguistic flourishes, but ultimately it disappoints.

As Connolly says in a letter/foreword addressed to Peter Quennell (a contemporary at Balliol),

I have been asked why I chose such unpleasant, unimportant and hopeless people to write about…I don’t know.

He thinks he has created ‘a young man as futile as any’ (this is true – but it isn’t as interesting as that sounds), who represents ‘a certain set of English qualities, the last gasp, perhaps, of rentier exhaustion.’

Edgar Naylor is spending the summer on the south coast of France, taking a sabbatical from his jobs – one as ‘a kind of apprentice-partner in a firm of stockbrokers’, the other ‘as self-appointed biographer of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St James’s Place.’

He doesn’t have a great deal of money, the narrator blandly insists, ‘just under a thousand pounds a year over which a trustee mounted guard like a dragon’. Poor chap – almost destitute. Later he’s said to have ‘enough money to avoid the general discipline of the professions, and not enough to buy more than indifferent consideration.’ How vulgar, to work for a living.

He decides to become ‘an observer, a naturalist’, an ‘entomologist’, his subject the teeming rock-pool life of the bohemian expats who haunted ‘Trou-sur-Mer’ – Hole on the Sea. Not patronising, then. The first pen portrait of him doesn’t enhance this unbecoming impression:

Naylor was neither very intelligent nor especially likeable, and certainly not very successful, and from the image of looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up, he would derive a pleasant sense of power.

It comes as no surprise that every soi-disant ‘artist’ or eccentric he meets fleeces him or cheats him barefacedly, cutting him dead as soon as they lose interest in him or his money runs out. He finds his money can’t even buy him love or friends.

The outcome is inevitable: from this starting point as ‘specimen’ collector and observer, he falls into the pool he intended anatomising, like Hylas with the Hamadryads (mentioned in the epigraph and foreword) and is doomed.

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

 

Unfortunately I didn’t care what happened to him, and cared even less about the cast of scoundrels and drifters he felt he could lord it over. He’s naive enough to find them initially exciting and attractive, then as they reveal themselves to be even more shallow and morally deficient than he is, his disillusionment intensifies his predilection for self-pity.

As I said there are touches of fine, often amusing prose. Here’s the description early on of his first encounter with Varna, the English co-owner of the Bastion bar, which becomes his drinking den:

She had something expectant and glistening about her, like a penguin waiting for a fish.

Initially finding her stimulating, Naylor came to realise ‘she was middle-class and, worse, was assuming that he was.’

He decided that she was profoundly antipathetic – that voice like a medium’s, those clairvoyant eyes, and that sturdy little body in inappropriate sailor trousers!

His inability to read people’s true characters is meant, perhaps, to be endearing; instead it’s simply another aspect of his irritating self-absorption and emotional sterility. And he’s a terrible snob, as that last extract indicates.

I raced through the final third of this mercifully short novel for all the wrong reasons: I couldn’t wait for it to end.

There’s some interest in the decadence of this seedy set Naylor falsely believes he’s accepted into: the bacchanalian evenings he participates in are attended by a range of sexually ambivalent types. These scenes caused Connolly to find it difficult to find a publisher initially on the grounds that the book was indecent. One of the first such gatherings led Naylor to conclude it ‘didn’t provide much evidence of human progress’, and reminded him he ‘was on the wrong side of Eden.’  It isn’t indecent. It’s just rather flashily tedious.

Blaise Cendrars does this kind of thing with much more panache, wit and weird charm.

Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet.

Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet. Virago Modern Classics, 2013. First published (posthumously) 1985

Miss Doggett is one of literature’s great bullies. Here’s how she’s first described –

She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many gold chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself.

Barbara Pym is good at using clothes (and hats) as an index of character. That purple dress and bling is a clear sign that Maude Doggett is another, rather stupider, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet She is vicious and domineering to everyone she considers her inferior (she’s obsequious with those few she considers her social superiors). She’s especially nasty to her hapless ‘paid companion’ of the last five years, Miss Jessie Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties.’ In spite of her ‘misleading appearance’, however, Miss Morrow is ‘a woman of definite personality, who was able to look on herself and her surroundings with detachment.’

Clearly Miss Morrow is a sort of surrogate novelist, Barbara Pym’s voice, eyes and ears. She finds life ‘so much funnier than any book.’ She has no illusions about her status, as she cheerful discloses:

A companion is looked upon as a piece of furniture. She is hardly a person at all.

She says to the self-confessed ‘feeble, inefficient’ curate, Mr Latimer, clearly alluding to Miss Doggett’s spitefulness and the world’s unfairness:

‘[Men] are feeble, inefficient sorts of creatures…Women are used to bearing burdens and taking blame. I have been blamed for everything for the last five years…even for King Edward VII’s abdication.’

Shortly before that opening description, Miss Doggett had barked at Miss Morrow about the whereabouts of the buns for the imminent (and excruciating) teaparty she regularly held for sycophantic or long-suffering undergraduates (the novel is set in genteel North Oxford) and occasional Anglican clerics.

She follows up with a complacently miserly reference to the ‘struggling fire’ that fails to warm the musty drawing-room overfull of dreary Victorian mahogany furniture, for it’s a cold, wet October day. She’d once reprimanded Miss Morrow for wearing a cotton vest:

“There is no warmth in cotton,’ continued Miss Doggett. ‘We could hardly expect to find warmth in cotton.’

Miss Morrow felt the reassuring tickle of her woollen underwear and turned away to hide a smile.

That’s the nature of the low-key humour in this flawed but entertaining novel. Through the tyrannical Miss Doggett, Pym is able to show Jessie Morrow as quietly rebellious; her small victories are achieved in various, often sartorial ways. At one point she decides against ‘her brown marocain with the beige collar’, among the ‘drab folds’ of her wardrobe, and puts on instead the richly gleaming blue velvet, bought to attend a wedding (‘Miss Doggett had thought it an extravagance’), confident that Mr Latimer, like all men, won’t notice such a frivolously colourful garment. She’s wrong.

On another occasion she ‘impulsively’ buys herself a spring dress ‘of tender leaf green’, which she hides in her wardrobe ‘among her old, drab things’, knowing it will inspire ‘damping remarks and disapproving raised eyebrows’, Miss Doggett’s especially.

When she finds the courage to wear it for the first time, Miss Doggett’s predictable wrath is palpable in its venomous inarticulacy:

‘Really, Miss Morrow,’ she began, ‘really…’ and then muttered a word that sounded like ‘popinjay’.

Here Pym artfully conveys the spiteful nature of this monster. When Mr Latimer exacerbates the situation by praising Miss Morrow’s verdant appearance, what follows is priceless:

Miss Doggett said nothing. Perhaps in her opinion Miss Morrow hardly counted as a woman, certainly not the kind to be associated with spring and new dresses.

The ‘strained’ dinner the three of them take soon after is one of several such set pieces in the novel, delicately nuanced, its seemingly innocuous humour spikily barbed. And it’s noteworthy that it’s through her choices of dress that Miss Morrow precipitates Mr Latimer’s unflattering proposal.

Others have written well about the plot (concerning multiple doomed romances and individuals trapped by social circumstance), which is perhaps the weakest aspect of this comedy of thwarted passions and ill-fated, farcical liaisons (and there are some awkward repetitions, like that overused ‘drab’ I’ve quoted already), so I’ll give some links at the end. All I’ll say is that Miss Morrow’s archly amused refusal of Mr Latimer’s proposal (straight out of the Mr Elton book of romantic declarations) is representative of her view that her life is as fulfilled and content as it’s ever likely to be, and that ‘worms’ of curates like Mr Latimer don’t make good husband material.

Resignation and occasional rebellion are preferable to revolution, and being risk-averse is sensible: those are some of the ironically ambivalent moral lessons learned in the narrative – and Miss Morrow’s stoicism often looks like a sardonic pose, put on to disguise her true, vibrant, indomitable nature.

Her low-level rebellions serve to indicate that not all irrational impulses are doomed in Banbury Road, and that tender green leaves can flourish in the dogged Miss Doggett’s ghastly drawing-room, stuffed full of faded sepia photographs and dreary prints, intended to display her good taste, but which serve instead to confirm her narrow-mindedness.

Other (rather better) Pym novels I’ve written about:

No Fond Return of Love

Excellent Women

Thoughtful 2013 review by blogger Heavenali.

Interesting 2015 essay by Rose Little (on the B. Pym Society’s website) on her long friendship with near-contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, based on the archive of their surviving correspondence held at the Bodleian. Little shows how both writers were interested in the themes of loneliness and the ways that individuals can become isolated from others. I discussed this, among other topics, in my recent pieces on Taylor’s short stories, and her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

 

 

Enmity and marriage: Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund

Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund. Virago Modern Classics (1991; first published 1985)

Victoria Glendinning’s Afterword to this Virago edition of Rebecca West’s Cousin Rosamund points out that the author left her continuation of The Fountain Overflows (which I wrote about recently here) in a typescript dating probably from the late 1950s. Part of it was published the year after her death (in 1983, aged 90) as This Real Night. She summarises how West mapped out how the story would have ended, soon after WWII.

The remainder constitutes about two thirds of Cousin Rosamund. After Rebecca West’s death her secretary found manuscripts which developed the story of the Aubrey family beyond the point where the typescript ended.

Rebecca West was a meticulous reviser of her work, and would presumably have edited the last third of this final novel in the Aubrey sequence before its publication. But as Glendinning says, ‘there is such fierceness and freshness in the drafted later section that one cannot regret what she might have considered as its lack of polish’.

he painting on the VMC cover is called 'Glitter', by American artist William Paxton.

The painting on the VMC cover is ‘Glitter’, by American artist William Paxton.

The zest of The Fountain Overflows is much reduced in the two sequels. In Cousin Rosamund the action resumes just after the devastation of WWI. Rose, the narrator, and her twin sister Mary have become famous concert pianists (like their mother before them). Conventional elder sister Cordelia has entered into a mundane, bourgeois marriage, and grown ever more distant and critical of her eccentric family and their bohemian circle. The eponymous cousin has trained as a nurse.

There’s even less plot in this final volume of the sequence than the previous two, but the lack of action rarely causes the narrative to drag. There are several beautifully realised set pieces, but the main interest increasingly resides in Rose’s response to abrasive experience during the decade or so after the first War.

Several of Rose’s family and friends marry men who appear singularly bad choices. Rose becomes increasingly convinced as a consequence that celibacy and solitude are preferable; sister Mary shares that view. But Rose’s convictions become so strong she undergoes a crisis that comes close to mental breakdown.

It’s the quality of writing that sustains the narrative. The characters’ eccentricity is often the source of wry humour, as in this early discussion by the twins and Rosamund, about their friend Nancy’s fiancé, whom they find dull and arrogant:

“But if he is going to be nice to her, we will do anything to please him,” said Mary. “Though I wonder how we can do it. I do wish there were only the people one can talk to and the other people that one just has to make signs at and offer curries to. It is the cases in between which are difficult.”

“Well, think of the only peaceful moments we have with the men who want to marry us,” I said. “They happen when we talk to them about what they do.”

 

Rosamund’s crucial role as the family’s moral arbiter is strongly indicated in the early part of this novel, as it was throughout the previous two. After this conversation, Rose feels emotionally cleansed, uplifted:

It was always so when Rosamund was with us, she found whatever we had for the moment lost.

Rose and Mary’s struggle to deal with relationships is complicated by Rosamund’s inexplicable marriage to a vulgar, swaggering magnate (he reminded me of a certain US president). Her motives for marrying this monster are never made clear, and her humiliation and embarrassment in his bullying, leering presence, the ‘cruelties and treacheries’ she endures, are painful for the sisters (and reader) to witness. Rosamund had always seemed their moral touchstone and guide; how could she have ‘sold herself to a freak of dubious origins and morals?’ Rose wonders. She and Mary are heartbroken; they feel like ‘deserted children’, and their suspicious view of men is endorsed. Here they discuss Rosamund’s former love interest, a man she was determined not to marry:

“I wonder why. I feel he had not that queer thing about him that all men have who want to marry us.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Why, enmity, of course,” said Mary.

When she reflects on her parents’ marriage, Rose concludes their Pappa had not ‘protected’ Mamma,

and most of the men we met in our profession and at parties seemed not to have been fitted at birth with any apparatus for cherishing. We could believe that those who were homosexual had become so simply in order to evade any such obligation.

That fastidiously witty choice of words is typical of Rebecca West’s unusual style and capacity for surprise – especially in the amount of erotic content in Cousin Rosamund, both homosexual and heterosexual. Much of the book deals with Rose learning to overcome her revulsion at sex as ‘rank stuff’, ‘such pollution spoils women to the destruction of their essence, they become rubbish.’

Then she has her epiphany – her discovery that she is not so bereft that she cannot love a man. Marriage enables Rose to live again, but she experiences further anguish as well. Life is like that.