Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Pym posts:

Quartet in Autumn

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca West, Harriet Hume

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

Harriet Hume cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers – conclusion. Power games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though heartless, the Stanhopes were not selfish.

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

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

The occupant in return stared hard at the countess.

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

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

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

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

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, continued

Back from my short break in the city of my alma mater, Bristol – maybe more on that another time. For now, I’d like to look at another early chapter – ch.2 – of Barchester Towers. Last time it was the ironically ambivalent portrayal of Dr Grantly I examined; Trollope was careful in The Warden to establish him as not exactly a villain, but in pressurising the saintly warden Harding not to follow his conscience and resign from his lucrative post he was shown to be more adherent to the reputation of the institution of the church than to the moral rectitude of his father-in-law. But as we saw, he is not the villain of this novel; he is still to come.

In Ch. 2 we learn that Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor Bold, has become a widow. Three times he exclaims ‘Poor Eleanor!’, building up a typically sonorous, not over-subtle head of rhetorical steam on her character and her position as a representative of the female sex, in the voice of his garrulous, opinionated and not entirely reliable narrator. This is the third iteration:

Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. But in her estimation he was most worthy. Hers was one of those feminine hearts which cling to a husband, not with idolatry, for worship can admit no defect in its idol, but with the perfect tenacity of ivy.

So she’s a ‘parasite plant’ that follows the defects of its host; she clung to her husband, faults and all. Once she had declared such ‘allegiance’ to her father; she then transferred that allegiance to her husband, ‘ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master’.

It’s not hard to see why Trollope is such a favourite with conservatives (famously, for example, with John Major, former Prime Minister of Britain): this is hardly a radically feminist portrayal. Eleanor is a typically dependent woman, according to this account, one without agency or independence of her own, deriving all her energy, sustenance and raison d’être from that ‘lord and master’. As always there’s a hint of irony in this voice, but the imagery of parasitic ivy is repeated near the novel’s end when she transfers that total allegiance to her dead husband’s successor. She is not a heroine, in other words – either in general terms, or in this novel. And there’s more:

Could she even have admitted that he had a fault, his early death would have blotted out the memory of it. She wept as for the loss of the most perfect treasure with which mortal woman had ever been endowed…consolation, as it is called, was insupportable, and tears and sleep were her only relief.

Our narrator does not hold her in very high esteem, then. There’s an element of sarcastic mockery here that’s maybe not to every reader’s taste. She’s portrayed as irrational, over-emotional, needy and useless without the support of her more sturdy (though deeply flawed) spouse. More to the point, Trollope is lining up his characters for what’s to come; we expect in a social-pastoral comedy like this to have a love interest at the heart of things, but Trollope obliges caustically.

He’s ensuring that we have little trust in Eleanor’s judgement or moral rigour so that when several potential husbands appear on the scene, he’s able to tease out the plot as a consequence of that poor judgement. She leans, in other words, to the wrong man…twice.

But this narrator isn’t too interested in the romantic element; he even warns us at an early stage when the rival suitors are established which ones she won’t end up marrying. Romantic suspense is not his priority.

So what is? More on that next time. It involves a lot of military metaphors.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

First published in 1857, Barchester Towers is the second of the six Chronicles of Barsetshire series of novels. It picks up the story that The Warden related (1855), concerning Septimus Harding’s renunciation of the wardenship of Hiram’s charitable hospital for old men, and the forces of opposing factions that pressed him into that course of (in)action, or urged him to stay on.

Barchester Towers cover

My Oxford World’s Classics paperback has a blemish where the charity shop sticker was peeled off; the illustration is a detail from ‘The Suitor’ by Jean Carolus. Oddly, the figure of the suitor has been cropped out.

This second novel picks up the thread four years on. As I’m about to travel for a few days, I don’t have time to say much about it here, so shall limit myself to a general introductory post. First: it’s a far superior novel to The Warden, which I found morally dubious, even though the story itself was entertainingly told. It’s more than twice as long, and has a wider, more interesting range of characters, some familiar, some new. The morality is now handled with much less clumsiness. There’s so much to say about the novel I may have to do a few posts to do it justice.

I’ll focus here on the opening chapter, ‘Who will be the new bishop?’ – the first of many such questions (ultimately, moral dilemmas) the narrative poses. Archdeacon Grantly, the high church stalwart who’d always been strongly opposed to Harding’s resignation (in all senses of that word), is sitting by his father the bishop’s deathbed. His is the first of a number of those moral dilemmas the novel portrays. The outgoing government administration is ‘well understood’ to favour the son’s succession to the mitre, and the local rumour machine has ‘whispered’ a similar opinion (there were similar whispers and rumours aplenty in The Warden). In many respects this is an improved reprise of that novel – Trollope seems to have realised where he went wrong.

Grantly is an ambitious man. He ‘tried to keep his mind away from the subject, but he could not. The race was so very close.’ For the ministry would be ‘out’ within five days, and the new administration would favour a different candidate. He gazed at his dying father’s ‘still living’ face,

and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death./The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man, sank on his knees by the bedside, and taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

Trollope excels at showing conflicting traits and impulses in his characters, especially at crucial moments like this. Grantly had been presented in The Warden (as I attempted to show in my posts on it) as too worldly and ambitious, so that he bullies those who dare oppose him, like meek, warm-hearted Harding. Here he shows a potential for generosity and, almost, love. He’s not an out and out villain – he will appear a few chapters later.

But just as we warm slightly to this brittle, morally compromised man, Trollope shifts the ground again: the bishop dies, and he needs to get a telegram off immediately if the PM is to be notified and able to make his decision about a replacement before he goes out of office. How to do this without seeming indecently hasty? ‘Now that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost…useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretence of a foolish sentiment.’ That sympathy Trollope had gently adduced for Grantly begins to wane.

Harding enters and comforts him; his dilemma deepens:

But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? how, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father the bishop – to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?

Grantly writes the telegram himself and gets Harding to send it under his own name – so he doesn’t seem too importunate. Harding is surprised to find Grantly, ‘as he thought, so much affected,’ but reluctantly complies.

What’s so satisfying in this scene, and the novel, is Trollope’s adept manipulation of his readers’ responses. We’re coaxed into feeling for Grantly, then let down with a bump as his stronger impulse triumphs over filial love. Look too at that sly aside as Harding surveys his son-in-law’s apparent grief: ‘as he thought’. Our narrator knows more, and hints at it.

There follows the first of many narrative intrusions. A long passage ironically defends Grantly, ostentatiously refusing to condemn him as he grieves – not for his father, but for his lost bishopric:

With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree…A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge…A young diplomate [sic] [is ambitious]…and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish…If we look to our clergymen to be more than men, we shall probably teach ourselves to think that they are less, and can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.

The irony is double-edged. He is censuring Grantly for his vaulting ambition, but acknowledges that he’s a flawed individual, not a representative of the clergy – this is Trollope’s principle; groups cannot be universally judged on the flaws or merits of individual representatives.

He goes on:

Our archdeacon was worldly – who among us is not so? He was ambitious – who among us is ashamed to own ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’? He was avaricious, my readers will say. No – it was not for love of lucre that he wished to be Bishop of Barchester. [He would be rich without it]…But he certainly did desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called ‘My Lord’ by his reverend brethren.

But these hopes, ‘were they innocent or sinful’, were not ‘fated to be realized’. The rhetorical symmetries in that passage are perhaps a little heavy-handed; a greater writer would have done this more subtly. Trollope may not be too interested in subtlety; he’s content to weave in and out of the positions we might normally expect of a narrator of a comedy with a moral message and keep unsettling us. Hence that piquant use of the first person plural: he turns the table on the reader, acknowledging Grantly’s venality, but confronting us with our own – and his. In refusing to preach, Trollope’s narrator demonstrates that moral rectitude is rarely straightforward.

My posts on The Warden are HERE and HERE

 

Julian Barnes, The Only Story

Julian Barnes, The Only Story. Published 2018 by Jonathan Cape, London.

Some of the best parts of this novel are the epigraphs, like the one at the beginning from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Novel: A small tale, generally of love.’

This is ‘the only story’, then: the unlikely love story of Paul, a late-teen university student, and Susan McLeod, a married woman in her forties. But this isn’t The Graduate: she doesn’t seduce him – this is a mutually conceived passion that, not surprisingly, goes comprehensively and terribly wrong.

Barnes Only Story cover

Front cover

That’s the plot, really, and I find I have little more to say about this. I thought some of Barnes’s earlier fiction was among the best of his times, especially Flaubert’s Parrot. A History of the World was spoilt for me by having to teach it to recalcitrant teenagers, but it has some excellent moments, especially the woodworm trial. Woodworm generally, in fact.

I found this one a bit slow. Barnes tries to up the interest by playing in a vaguely postmodern way with the narrative voice: there’s a lot of direct address to the reader and second-person speculation of this kind:

If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself.

So what’s the point? It’s not the ‘Call me Ishmael’ buttonholing technique of Melville; we seem to be invited to consider this to be a kind of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ confessional, but not a diary or a recording – the narrator even tells us at one point that he did keep a diary for a while, but this narrative is of a different order. What is it then? Therapy, of a Holden Caulfield type? I couldn’t work it out. And saying: ‘I’m not trying to spin you a story; I’m trying to tell you the truth’, rings only too true: there’s not enough story. That it’s the Only Story doesn’t help. The colloquial anti-storytelling mode keeps yielding up the likes of ‘I see where you’re going’ and ‘You think I’m being naïve’ (that ‘you’ is we, the readers, as if in a teenagers’ chatroom, not a novel for grownups).

And that ‘talking to yourself/reader’ trope became wearing after a while, especially when the predominantly first-person vaguely autobiographical voice shifts in part 2 to pretty much full-on second person, ‘You believe her’, etc.

Then in Part 3 an omniscient third-person narrator takes over, with this slightly glib and tricksy justification:

But nowadays, the first person in him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.

The back cover of the dust jacket

The back cover of the dust jacket

This voice reveals to us details like Paul’s keeping another notebook in which he simply records what other people have written about love. Often he crosses these entries out as events in his life, or his modes of thinking, cause him to change his mind about them – hence the rather unattractive cover images on the dustjacket.

I can’t find any particular reason for that narrative voice-shifting, other than the obvious effect it has on perspective on what’s being told – but it’s of little consequence, I find. Mrs TD read this before me and asked me to, so we could discuss it, as she wasn’t sure about her opinion. When I’d finished and told her (briefly) what I’ve written here, she looked relieved, and said she’d had exactly the same reservations about it.

I’m afraid I find Paul’s endless picking over the detritus of this doomed affair and reflections on time, memory, etc. – not much else happens – are of more interest to him as a character than they are to me (or Mrs TD). It’s like having to listen to someone telling you in detail what they dreamt last night. There’s way too much tennis, too, for my taste.

I can’t bring myself to write entirely negatively about such a fine writer. Here are some balancing remarks  that brighten the picture somewhat.

This is an early description of the character who sadly pops up too infrequently, for her portrayal is the best thing in the novel. She’s an eccentric slightly older woman friend of Susan’s, with a sad story of her own to reveal at one point:

She was a large woman in a pastel-blue trouser suit; she had tight curls, brown lipstick, and was approximately powdered.

Moira at her Clothes in Books blog would find plenty to get stuck into with this novel: Barnes has a fine eye for the details of appearances and what they signify about character (like the tennis dress Susan wears when she and Paul first meet; it shouldn’t be sexy, but clearly is for him) – here we get all we need to know about Joan’s shambolic loneliness, which doesn’t conceal her emotional wounds or her sagacity and human kindness.

Now I find I’ve flicked through the whole novel and that was the only passage I’d marked as being well done; there’s one other, but would take too much quotation to do it justice.

 

 

Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones: Cornwall

Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88), The Living Stones: Cornwall. Peter Owen, 2017. First published 1957

Ithell Colquhoun was a surrealist painter who became increasingly interested in the occult and arcane esoterica – to such an extent that she was expelled from the English Surrealist Group in 1940 – which must have taken some doing. She was a member of the Druidic Order, and the one to which WB Yeats belonged: Stella Matutina. The Goose of Hermogenes (1961), also published by Peter Owen, is her work of surrealist fiction.

Colquhoun Living Stones She writes here, describing herself as ‘an animist’ rather than a ‘pantheist’, of the mystical qualities of Cornwall, in particular in the wild, rugged landscape of West Penwith, where she kept a studio in the 1940s and moved there permanently in the fifties, partly restoring a near derelict hut at Vow Cave near Lamorna. It’s this move that forms the backdrop to The Living Stones. She writes with passion and poetic fervour about the dramatic windswept moors, with their standing stones, strange stone circles still fizzing with atmosphere and mystery, the outcrops and huge granite boulders that look sculpted by some ancient surreal artificer, redolent of an ‘unattained past’.

It’s best I think just to give a few examples of her unique take – I’m reminded of the almost equally committed, entranced response to Penwith’s savage beauty of DH Lawrence, whose stay near Zennor during WWI I wrote about a few times a year or so back here. Here’s an early description of her local valley:

It is not so much that individual buildings are haunted as that the valley itself is bathed in a strange atmosphere. The weirdness spreads up through the Bottoms to Tregadgwith and up through that more open branch of the valley which runs under Bojewan’s Carn, spreads, indeed, all over West Penwith, thinning out here, coagulating there. One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain localities, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places beyond the confines of Lamorna.

The chapter ‘The Living Stones’ begins memorably:

The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest have each their special personality dependent on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as New-Age hippydom, but anyone who’s lived in this beautiful peninsula, as I have for over twenty years, will attest to the special quality of its land, air, sea – and the stones; she goes on:

West Penwith is granite, one of the oldest rocks, a byword for hardness, endurance, inflexibility. That is the fundamental fact about Cornwall’s westernmost hundred, and, unless you like granite, you will not find happiness there.

It’s not just the prehistoric aura that she describes; she also writes well about the Celtic Christian layers of mystical presence in Kernow. She cites the old saying, ‘there are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven’, and has clearly researched meticulously those saints, many who crossed from Ireland (in St Piran’s case, by means of a highly unorthodox millstone), and gave their names to so many towns, villages and hamlets. She likes to speculate on the pre-Christian origins of many of the places made holy by these Celtic missionaries – not only the churches and chapels but also the caves and especially the wells and springs with which the county is liberally supplied.

She writes of a group of free-thinking young people, nowadays we’d probably call them travellers or hippies, who try to establish a sort of commune near her hut. It doesn’t end well.

She also records, with varying levels of approval, some of the traditions and festivals of the region, from the Obba Oss of Padstow to the Furry Dance of Helston (Flora is a more modern invention that obscures its misty Celtic origins). She describes the bards and their Gorsedd (the Cornish equivalent of eisteddfod), the Arthurian legends that intrigued Lawrence (not surprisingly she can’t abide the modern commercial exploitation of Tintagel with its ersatz tourist tat).

Although this mystical lyricism can get a bit wearing, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Colquhoun’s palpable love for the living landscape of this region. Let me finish with one of my favourite passages in a book filled with highly evocative, poetic descriptions; she’s been trying to trace the holy well of St Germoe:

The track here was dank, shadowed by soughing trees full of violence and sadness. I hurried upwards, relieved to get clear of the valley. How much primeval gloom can still lurk almost within earshot of a busy road!

See: she does have a sense of humour – though there’s a lot of grumpy railing against the barbaric incursions of modern consumerism: she hates the blare of radios and polluting racket of trippers’ cars. Most of us in Cornwall, I’d have to admit, have been guilty of this kind of curmudgeonly intolerance of incomers as we commune with our pilgrim saints and haunted moors and chough-guarded cliffs, with that ‘tingling magnetism’ that flows along this landscape and that Colquhoun felt and loved.

PS: There are interesting woodcuts by Colquhoun at the end of every chapter, and several WG Sebald-esque grainy black-and-white photos. I’d be grateful if anyone could tell me how her name is pronounced; is it similar to ‘Ethel’? or ‘eye-thul’? The guide at Tate St Ives who showed a group of students and staff around the recent Virginia Woolf exhibition (I wrote a post about it here) pronounced it (for there were several of Colquhoun’s surreal landscapes in the excellent exhibition) somewhere between these two possibilities.

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Post 2

Last time I took Trollope to task for his tipping the moral balance of The Warden against the reformers, despite his finding fault too with the corrupt and privileged elite, like the warden Harding’s ‘most coveted of the snug clerical sinecures attached to our church’ (note that use of ‘our’) as well as the representatives of the law, media and state. As my replies to comments on that first post suggest, he goes out of his way to punish the blameless old men in the hospital, and in fact make their position even worse once the decision is made – by whom, or how, the author neglects to tell us, we just have to take his word for it – not to award them a penny more from the charitable trust that provides for them. All the reformers succeed in doing, is his moral, is to worsen their lot, and endanger their own happiness.

This time I’d like to be less indignant about Trollope’s moral tepidity, and say something about some of the novel’s merits. Chief among these is his ability to use a varying narrative voice and position with which to deliver his observations (even though, to return to my indignation for a moment, some of these are pretty unsavoury).

First is his (usually successful, but not always) pose as an ironically less-than-omniscient, humble recorder of limited materials available to him. This is from ch. 6:

What had passed between Eleanor Harding [the eponymous warden’s unmarried daughter, in love with misguided reforming zealot John Bold] and Mary Bold [the reformer’s unimpressed sister] need not be told. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task – a novel in one volume…[and then he’s forced to resume the scene at the warden’s tea party; and his novel fills just 284 pages of my OWC edition!]

Trollope as metafictional postmodernist! This knowing ironic stance recurs often, as in ch. 11:

And now I own I have fears for my heroine; not as to the upshot of her mission [to dissuade her beloved John Bold from continuing his campaign against her father’s unfair share of the trust’s funds]…as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt; but as to the amount of sympathy she may receive from those of her own sex.

The narrator goes on to suggest that only ‘girls below twenty and old ladies above sixty will do her justice’, for these are the only groups of females who still have hearts capable of opening up ‘the soft springs of sweet romance’. But the majority of the rest, he fears, will disapprove of her plan. For they are sufficiently worldly (as in unromantic) to know that ‘young women on their knees before their lovers are sure to get kissed.’

OK, he concedes with a wink, this prediction might well come true, but he claims Eleanor’s youth is such that she doesn’t yet know such an outcome is likely:

She may get kissed; I think it very probable that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to.

This is good fun – though not entirely generous to Eleanor. But I can’t go on finding Trollope politically incorrect, so let’s allow him some good jokes, even if they are a bit off-colour.

He even makes a gesture of propitiation about that dodgy morality I’ve been complaining about. This is in the penultimate ch. 20, ‘Farewell’, in which the narrator takes his leave of the awful bully, archdeacon Grantly, who has been indomitable in his defence of the warden’s position – not out of fondness for his father-in-law, but because of his unswerving belief in the church’s infallibility. I’ll have to edit this long section, which is a pity, because it dilutes the subtlety of the effects achieved by the narrative voice:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man [not his stronger points]. That he is a man somewhat too fond of his own way, and not sufficiently scrupulous in his manner of achieving it, his best friends cannot deny. That he is bigoted in favour, not so much of his doctrines as of his cloth, is also true: and it is true that the possession of a large income is a desire that sits near his heart. Nevertheless the archdeacon is a gentleman and a man of conscience…His aspirations are of a healthy, if not the highest, kind…He is…a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is a matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

That’s also pretty good – there’s a touch of the ironical voice of some of Jane Austen’s deceptively gentle, critical narrators, with a slight suggestion too of Henry Fielding’s garrulously intrusive, highly unreliable narrator in Tom Jones. Even though I hate that Trollope can’t quite bring himself to punish the likes of the odious Grantly, while he’s happy to ruin the harmless old bedesmen in the hospital, I have to concede that this is good writing – that arch use of anaphora (‘That he is…’ repeated and varied numerous times in this passage), accompanied by the nuanced repetitions (‘is true’) of the obvious defects in Grantly – his weaknesses, hypocrisy, bigotry and greed – are beautifully laid out here, all in the witty guise of a defence of the man.

And now I find I’ve gone on too long once again. I doubt I’ll return for another post on this novel, which is a shame, because there are some interesting things in it about the presentation of women (I’ve hinted at a few features already, not all of them to Trollope’s credit), the somewhat heavy-handed ironical portraits of contemporary writers and The Times newspaper and its unscrupulous journalists; there’s even a little swipe at that easiest of targets, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some of these sections are duds, and the digressions set in London tend to look like padding, but some are really well done – and the fake news aspects of the amoral press and emotionally exploitative, manipulative Mr Popular Sentiment (a rather nasty attack on Dickens) that he depicts are sadly pertinent today.

As I was about to publish this a comment by Izzy popped up on the previous post, making a good point about some of Trollope’s merits, including use of dialogue – do take a look if you missed it.

 

 

 

 

Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Anthony Trollope (1815-82), The Warden. First published 1855. Oxford World’s Classics 1994.

Trollope’s fourth novel is set in the cathedral town (based in part on Salisbury) of Barchester, and is the first of six in the Barsetshire sequence.

Its subject was highly topical: the ‘malapropriation of church funds’ (p. 24) and other financial/corruption scandals that beset the Church of England in the mid-19C, such as that involving the already wealthy Earl of Guilford’s nepotistically acquired Mastership of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester: from this role he earned an income far greater than the amount allocated for the charity he ostensibly headed (David Skilton’s Introduction gives useful context).

Trollope Warden cover

This rather sweet cover illustration is from ‘The Only Daughter’ by J. Hallyar. It conveys the loving bond between Warden Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

A similarly dubious charitable institution inspires the plot of The Warden. The clergy of Barchester are described in the opening pages as the town’s ‘aristocracy’, and Septimus Harding, precentor of the cathedral for the previous ten years (he’s about sixty as the novel opens) has been appointed by the Bishop as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support. In return for neglible pastoral duties he’s awarded a moderately large annual income of £800 and a pleasant house with garden, while the charity’s supposed beneficiaries, the bedesmen, get a paltry daily allowance (supplemented by 2d daily out of Harding’s own pocket – though this doesn’t make much of a dent in his own income) and a home.

When local physician and ‘strong reformer’ of ‘all abuses’ John Bold takes up the old men’s case, advocating reform of this unjust division of the alms the hospital’s 15C founder surely intended was to benefit the old men, and not the titular head, the stage is set for a contentious and litigious conflict, for Archdeacon Grantly, married to Harding’s elder daughter Susan, is a fierce defender of the church’s reputation, and he enlists the services of the Sir Abraham Haphazard, the highest and toughest QC in the land, a ‘machine with a mind’, driven only by ‘success’, to fight the reformers. Meanwhile a campaigning, reforming newspaper ‘The Jupiter’, based loosely on The Times, takes up the case on the old men’s behalf, printing highly rhetorical and sensational stories that fuel the personified ‘Scandal’ in the town and its ‘murmurs’ and ‘whispers’ about the injustice of the Warden’s position.

To complicate things further, the naively (over-)zealous reformer Bold is in love with Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, and she intervenes on her father’s behalf, knowing he is too mild-mannered and self-effacing to put up a fight for his own benefit.

The novel is charming, amusing and highly entertaining, and written (mostly) with great zest, pace and gentle irony. It’s weakened, however, by Trollope’s tendency to hedge his moral bets. On the one hand, he presents the reforming side as hypocritical, amoral and misguided; Bold, for example, is described thus by the narrator:

There is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others.

Although there’s a whiff of irony in this critique of sanctimonious reformers, it still portrays Trollope’s view: that the church may well have some corrupt or greedy individuals, but that by and large as an institution it would be excessive to reform it from top to bottom; individuals are flawed, not institutions, he seems to suggest. Bold is comforts himself smugly in the ‘warmth of his own virtue’, according to this partial narrator.

On the other hand, the church is presented as a deeply corrupt, decadent institution full of ‘grasping priests’ and ‘gorged on wealth’ that’s badly in need of reform. But again it’s just a few individuals who are singled out for critical appraisal. Chief of these is Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and Bishop’s son; here’s that same ironical first-person, garrulous narrative voice describing him early on:

He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop; he is always the same; he is always the archdeacon; unlike Homer, he never nods…[and has a] sonorous tone and lofty deportment which strikes awe into the young hearts of Barchester, and absolutely cows the whole parish of Plumstead Episcopi [his parish].

‘Sleekness’ is excellent.

Later he’s likened to an ‘indomitable cock’ sharpening his spurs, readying for combat with the Warden, who he perceives as full of weakness and treachery (towards the church and the ‘sacred justice of al ecclesiastical revenues’); his ‘holy cause’ is to defend ‘the holy of holies from the touch of the profane’ and ‘pestilent dissenters’ – the reformers and the insurrectionary, ungrateful bedesmen. Oh, and he secretly reads Rabelais, hiding and locking the salacious book away when visitors call, and pretending instead to be composing sermons.

These bedesmen, largely illiterate old men, like Dickens’s trade unionists in Hard Times, are shown (with one noble but rather sycophantic exception, called Bunce) motivated by avarice rather than a sense of moral rectitude; their advocates are ‘raising immoderate hopes’ in their previously contented minds, and making them ‘hostile’ towards their kindly Warden. Here’s that sententious, floridly oratorical narrative voice on this in ch. 4:

Poor old men! Whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and, above all…a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

This is both disingenuous and patronising – these men are given a pittance to live on, so would benefit greatly from a larger income. Trollope seems to side with the establishment view (like Grantly’s) that money is wasted on the labouring classes – they can’t appreciate the finer things of life, and don’t therefore deserve them. And Trollope ensures at the end that they don’t receive an extra penny when the Warden does the decent, honourable thing and resigns, unable to justify his ‘hated income’; ‘I have no right to be here’, he confesses  (and detects a savour of ‘simony’ in an offer of an alternative living by Grantly near the end) – a stance much to the horror and against the urgings of the hypocritical archdeacon, self-serving lawyers and fake-news-purveyors of the Jupiter.

Rather like Dickens’s equivocal position on social injustice and industrial exploitation of workers in Hard Times,published the previous year, Trollope seems genuinely disconcerted by the injustices he portrays, but can’t bring himself to turn his satirical guns on to the culpable institutions or their representatives. Instead he represents Warden Harding as a meek, saintly, pious and harmless old man, while the warring factions, as I’ve indicated, are all tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Whereas Dickens seems to think that if the poor can just have circuses and be amused, all will be well in the world, Trollope suggests in this novel that if do-gooders just kept their noses out of other people’s business, the few good men like Harding would keep in check the venality and greed of the few bad, weak men who spoil a system which, though flawed, serves pretty well most of the time.

I realise I’ve started off sounding rather negative about this novel; so I need another post to indicate some of this novel’s virtues and delights. And maybe a few more cavils.

Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.