Unhappy families: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her…

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverSo begins The Beginning of Spring, the third of the Penelope Fitzgerald novels I read in the Everyman trilogy. Set in Russia, significantly just before the twin catastrophes of WWI and the Revolution, it’s completely different from the other two, set in England in the recent past, and both wry comedies. This one is too, but it’s darkened and chilled by the harsh early spring of Moscow, and the Russian tendency towards tragedy and intrigue.

It’s only on a second reading that the little clues and hints as to why Nellie has left her printer/publisher husband become apparent. Here’s the first description of him, with Fitzgerald’s trademark economy with words, trusting her reader to ponder the layered significance:

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage.

Does this mean that Muscovites are a dramatic lot, and only histrionic behaviour will register? Or that Frank finds it difficult to engage with souls as ardent as Nellie’s (don’t be fooled by her music-hall name)? Maybe he’s just not very good at acting – in all senses of the word.

She’d left him a note to tell him she’d left him. He knows it’s a momentous message, as they rarely wrote to each other in this way:

It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

 

These are Frank’s thoughts, indirectly narrated. But has he intuited that she was unhappy with her marriage? Fitzgerald is too subtle an artist to tell us. The possibility is hanging in the air somewhere in Frank’s vicinity. We are party to his perplexity and slow-dawning realisation.

He wonders how much he’ll miss her and the children:

…he couldn’t tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later.

Fitzgerald shows this entire marriage and its fissures, this perplexed husband, his wife and their natures, in the first three pages of the novel.

What follows is an intriguing examination of Frank’s response to this crisis. It reads at time like a domestic sketch by Turgenev or Chekhov, but has an unmistakably English take on marital disaster. There’s the semi-comic figure of Frank’s Tolstoy-worshipping accountant, Selwyn, who writes soulful poems in Russian ‘about birch trees and snow’. Like his spiritual master, Selwyn delights in ‘charitable enterprise’:

With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.

Frank tends to patronise him, realising much too late that he’s underestimated him. Selwyn’s selfish philanthropy is presented with deceptive lightness; he’s more dangerous than he looks here; Fitzgerald’s prose is always poised to surprise.

The children, when they mysteriously reappear in Moscow, sent back ‘like parcels’ by their bolting mother, are preternaturally astute – far more so than Frank – as they were in Offshore. Jacqui Wine has written well about this (link at the end), so I’ll refrain from doing so here.

The formidable Mrs Graham, the English chaplain in the city, is one of several brilliantly depicted characters (Nellie’s brother, Charlie, who turns up to try to help Frank in his extremity turns out to be genial but delightfully useless, is another). Frank, we are told, was not afraid of her, ‘or at least not as afraid as some people were.’  Here she is when Frank goes to seek her advice about Nellie’s desertion of him:

‘Mr Reid?’ she called out in her odd, high, lightly drawling voice. ‘This is an expected pleasure.’

‘You knew I was going to come and ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

Restless as a bird of prey which has not caught anything for several days, she nodded him towards the seat next to her.

 

Such vivid, witty characterisation is only one of this novel’s rich rewards. As in the other two novels in the Everyman edition, there are some wonderfully pithy narrative comments. Here’s one chosen at random; Frank’s children are in the kitchen, gossiping about the young woman, Lisa Ivanovna, perilously pretty and apparently fragile, who he has recruited to care for them in Nellie’s absence:

Perhaps children were better off without a sense of pity.

As ever these seem to be Frank’s thoughts we’re privy to; for once he’s probably right: they cheerfully transfer their affections from their mother to Lisa with the insouciant rapidity of youth. And these thoughts are filtered through the sensibility of the poised, non-judgemental, omniscient but reticent narrator – who prefers to withhold as much as she discloses. For that’s how are lives unravel in reality: unmediated, mysterious.

As with Offshore and Human Voices, which I wrote about last, I’d recommend this short, wise novel. It has one of the finest, most startling last sentences of any novel.

Mansky_District,_Krasnoyarsk_Krai,_Russia_-_panoramio_(6)

Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. By Александр Ромашенко, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60549878 (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

There’s one scene near the end which I found baffling, and I’d love to hear what other readers made of it if they’ve read it more successfully than I have. Lisa has unwillingly taken Dolly, Frank’s little daughter, deep into a birch forest in the country at night. In a clearing –

Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa…Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’

Then they go home.

What’s happening here? It seems like a witches’ sabbat, a mystical-spiritual meeting maybe. Or political? It seems a sort of epiphany, but for whom? Who is Lisa communing with?

As noted above, Jacqui has an excellent review of the novel at her blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Music and silence: Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices

 

Broadcasting House

Langham Place, damaged by a bomb in the Blitz; in the background, BBC Broadcasting House, looking like the Queen Mary. Attribution: By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20532090

 In my previous post I suggested that the three novels in this trilogy published by Everyman are all very different in subject matter and approach. The first two, however, have a London setting in what, for Penelope Fitzgerald, would have been the fairly recent past.

She worked for the BBC during the Second World War; Human Voices is set in Broadcasting House (referred to in HV as BH, built in Art Deco style to resemble an ocean liner) during the Blitz of 1940, and lived in a Thames-side barge in the early 60s, which is the setting for Offshore.

 Both novels concern small, unworldly communities, peopled by characters whose eccentricities are exposed with detached amusement; they aren’t judged. The riverside and the BBC are refuges for the lost, a place of solace for the lonely. The characters are shown in shifting patterns, interacting with those around them (there’s little conventional plot), and the reader is left to consider what their minor dramas signify. It’s that tone of humorous, often ironic sympathy, with an underlying menace and even violence that gives them both their distinctive effect. They both end with a distressing scene of catastrophe.

Tube shelter

Tube station air-raid shelter in the West End during the Blitz. By US Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s inevitable that Human Voices has a more sombre impact, given that the BBC was attempting to keep the public informed of the war’s disastrous progress; in 1940 France, like most of Europe, had fallen, and invasion of England seemed imminent. The BBC, a microcosm of the nation, was struggling to maintain its task: to broadcast continuously in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances. The lifts don’t function fully (to preserve energy), senior staff more or less live in BH (and their marriages implode as a result) and confusion is rife: ‘The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.’ The building is often shaken by bombs. Casualties are commonplace, even among BBC staff. A Blitz spirit prevails in the building as it does outside.

A central theme of the novel is the insistence by the BBC that they avoid what is now notoriously referred to as ‘fake news’:

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

The author isn’t frivolous. Despite her cast of amusing, bumbling and obsessively selfish or flawed characters, Fitzgerald has a serious message here. She did this in Offshore, too: the occasional step away from narrative detachment and levity to pronounce something of profound significance. Even with the ironic undertone in this example, her point is telling. All wars are reported mendaciously. People are always lied to by their leaders. This applied in 1940, in 1980 when this novel was published, and it still applies perhaps more than ever before today. Neither will the truth necessarily make you free.

Once the characters in the BBC have been introduced, it’s apparent that the institution has a crippling hierarchical structure. In this respect it resembles one of the stuffier English public schools or less prestigious military regiments (from where most of the senior staff were – probably still are – recruited). Referred to by the initials of their post, like DDP and RPD, they are comically self-important and often deluded about their own merits. Very like the characters in Offshore, in fact – where another hermetically detached community clings to its customs on the margins of ordinary life.

Once again I commend you to other blogs for plot summary. I’d like just to pick out a few salient features.

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz. By H.Mason – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1342305/The-Blitzs-iconic-image-On-70th-anniversary-The-Mail-tells-story-picture-St-Pauls.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19771597

Annie Asra is employed by the organisation when she is just 17, and she’s a breath of fresh air. She’s refreshingly blunt and outspoken without being cruel – qualities which her colleagues are unfamiliar with.

Broadcasting the truth is discussed by Waterlow, one of the more eccentric BBC producers, responsible for drama and the arts (as precarious in 1940 as they are now), with Annie, when she asks with characteristic forthrightness why he seems to have so little to do.

The BBC is doing gits bit [he thinks that imitating her Midlands accent is amusing]. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The oppostite could also be true!

Annie refuses to be so cynical, or to accept that ‘truth’ is relative. When she asks what the BBC could possibly find to broadcast ‘that’s got to be true’ in his terms:

He gestured towards the piano.

‘We couldn’t put out music all day!’

‘Music and silence.’

The most important broadcast described in the novel is the ten minutes of silence that followed when Jeff, one of the two central characters, a senior figure in the BBC, ‘pulled the plug’ on a French General who, it was assumed, would speak extempore in praise of the continuing struggle against the Germans by the surviving Free French forces, but instead had launched into a defeatist harangue.

It’s typical of Fitzgerald’s wry take on the world that she shows Jeff being reprimanded for his initiative.

The novel’s title seems to be taken from Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘then human voices wake us and we drown.’ Radio is mostly about voices (no TV in 1940). The voices in this novel also serve, as perhaps they do for emotionally paralysed Prufrock, to attempt to reconcile real life – the Blitz, war, death, cruelty, tragedy, comedy – and something more transcendent and mystical, like music and silence. When a central character dies at the end, it’s for his voice that he’ll be remembered, rather than his kindness to others.

Annie’s love for her boss, the serially predatory but deeply vulnerable Sam, isn’t entirely convincing in its resolution, but the novel is worth reading – like Offshore – for its quietly compassionate presentation of characters trying to get by in a dangerously confusing world, and for its well-crafted prose. Here’s just one closing example.

Annie is shown as a child helping her piano-tuner father:

When at last he took out his hammer and mutes, ready to tune, his daughter became quite still, like a small dog pointing… [He continues tuning:] It was a recurring excitement of her life, like opening a boiled egg, the charm being not its unexpectedness but its reliability.

Human flotsam: Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverThe handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.

Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).

The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.

Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!

Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.

Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.

This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.

Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):

Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.

A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.

Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.

Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:

But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.

Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.

Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.

What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.

There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.

I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.

Links to other discussions of this novel:

Jacqui Wine here

Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)

 

[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]

Complications, embarrassments: Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75), The Soul of Kindness. VMC 2012; first published 1964

Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel is not her best; it verges at times on soap-opera, and some of the characterisation is dodgy (like Liz, the unconvincing, scruffily antisocial artist). But it’s still one to be savoured slowly for the subtle prose and insidious, perceptive wit that shows with human warmth the vicissitudes of living among other people who know themselves as little as they know you. A former university acquaintance of mine was noted for her frequent marginal comments on MSS she edited when she turned to publishing: LTRDSW – let the reader do some work. That’s just what this author does when she’s at her best: she doesn’t spell everything out.

Take one random example. Richard Quartermaine, a successful but bored businessman, has by chance met a near neighbour, Elinor, on his commute home, and they’d taken tea together. He neglects to tell his wife, Flora, heavily pregnant with their first child, on his return. Flora is a variation on Emma: a meddler in other people’s lives, invariably with catastrophic consequences (one of them in this novel turns out to be fatal).

The narrative here takes the point of view and voice of Richard, contemplating the ‘placid beauty’ and ‘appealing gaze’ of Flora, all innocence and complacent ‘Botticelli calm’:

She seemed to be as busy as anything, just bearing her child. Full-time job. He brushed a thought from his mind.

From his guilty interior monologues earlier it’s evident that this ‘thought’ is disloyal to her, and that he’s in some way attracted to the less flawed Elinor. By not admitting their tea together, that guilt is compounded. Taylor trusts her readers to know what’s going on.

Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness coverThe disasters that befall those whose lives Flora interferes with are competently recounted in the novel, but for me the more interesting plot involves this…whatever it is… between waveringly loyal Richard – frustrated by his wife’s childlike schemes and indolent self-satisfaction, oblivious to and unaware of the damage she causes – and Elinor, whose blimpish MP husband neglects her, leaving her starved of affection. In Richard she sees a sympathetic fellow sufferer and potentially more satisfying connection. Is he?

Elinor’s childlessness is a Taylor trope, usually signifying lack of emotional fulfilment, and — her habitual central theme – loneliness.

The first time they’d awkwardly got together she’d told Richard how busy her husband was – implying his neglect. Richard blurts out:

‘Aren’t you lonely?’ immediately wishing that he hadn’t – definitely not a question to put to another man’s wife…

‘Sometimes I am,’ she then admitted.

Flora gives birth in a nursing-home after a long labour. Visited by Meg there after the birth of her daughter, she asks her friend to be godmother. The reader knows that Meg is not her first choice – but it wouldn’t occur to emotionally stunted Flora to consider this hurtful to her closest friend. When Meg tells her she doesn’t believe in God, Flora’s response typifies Taylor’s economy in revealing character and her mordant precision with language:

‘But of course you do, darling,’ Flora said comfortably.

Back to Flora’s husband and Elinor. It’s not quite a flirtation, and certainly not an affair. There are several further liaisons, after that furtive teashop meeting. We’re given numerous insights into the loveless marriage Elinor endures with her boring, thoughtless husband. Finally, she detours past Richard’s street, having spent a soul-numbing break in a drab seaside resort (while her husband was abroad) that only intensified her sense of loneliness, and then a humiliating solitary day in London that ended with her being chatted up by a tedious pub lothario. The narrative provides her thoughts as she nears Richard’s house, torturing herself by imagining his idyllic life with his lovely wife and baby, newly returned home :

Richard was one of her given-up hopes. She had not wanted much of him – his company and conversation.

Really? She goes on the consider that he merely used her for company when his wife was confined. When he invites Elinor in for a drink (she hadn’t realised he was alone), she reconsiders, in directly narrated first-person thought that artfully slips straight into semi-revealing third-person free indirect thought, an indication of how incompletely honest she’s being with herself?

‘He’s really my only friend…How dreadful if I did something to lose him. It was all she wanted – and had happened with miraculous luck – to talk to sit and have a drink with him, for him to be at ease with her, to take her for granted. She had not fallen in love with him, and desired nothing that belonged to Flora: but he must have something left over from that, which he could spare her; everybody has something left over.

Another rare instance in the novel, perhaps, of a character confronting the reality of her connection with another human being.

Meg’s interior monologue continues:

Marital complications she abhorred – husbands and wives in a changing pattern. Complications; embarrassments. If, for instance, as he crossed the room now with her drink – if, instead of handing it to her, he should put it down on the little table beside her and take her into his arms…even imagining this she was overcome with confusion and dismay. [Author’s ellipsis, tellingly]

So – maybe she’s not as honest with herself as she appeared to be earlier. The scene ends with a trademark Elizabeth Taylor disappointment; as she leaves, Richard half-heartedly invites her to visit more often – to see Flora! Elinor’s thoughts on this:

He was always easy with her, always kind and equable; but behind his urbane manner might conceivably be bored, or irritated, or embarrassed…Kind, neighbourly words [she muses as she walks home]. All he had to offer. We all talk like it most of the time, to make the wheels go round.

What’s worse than wondering if the one you’re attracted to doesn’t reciprocate your feelings? The possibility that you bore, irritate or embarrass them. We all think like that. But few writers depict it so poignantly.

 

 

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.