Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season. Virago Modern Classics, 2006

In a Summer Season takes its title from the opening line of the medieval alliterative poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman. This alerts us to the likelihood of a story that will involve a quest for a good, honest life and essential truth in the face of vice and worldly obstacles – a search for a vision of what the world might be, uncorrupted. This will involve epiphanies and life-changing experiences.

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season cover VMC editionThe surprising amount of sex in the novel is largely due to the mid-life crisis of the protagonist, Kate Heron, an attractive woman in her early 40s who lives in a comfortable former vicarage in a middle-class commuter neighbourhood of big houses and what Kate sourly calls ‘Underwriter Georgian’ developments (it’s the Thames Valley, just an hour by train from London). It’s the era when Kate’s class of women didn’t work (husbands did that) and kept servants; Kate has the eccentric cook-housekeeper Mrs Meacock and an irascible gardener.

After the death of her first husband Alan she’d quickly married again, a year before the action of this novel begins. Her second husband is a charming but irresponsible ‘drifter’ called Dermot, ten years her junior, only ten years older than her son Tom. His only interests are gambling and drinking and feeling sorry for himself. Kate’s maiden aunt, Ethel, who lives with her in a state of sadly genteel dependency, considers Dermot a fellow ‘parasite’ – a view that’s harder on herself than on Dermot. At least she teaches cello to Kate’s untalented 16-year-old boarding school daughter Louisa, on the long summer holiday during which the novel’s action takes place, emphasising that sense of change and mutability that the title hints at. Ethel encourages in Lou the passion for classical music that Kate’s late husband shared with his wife and daughter, and which bores Dermot and Tom (who prefers jazz) – they’re like twins, not stepfather and son. Two Hamlet types (more on that later).

Most other people in this affluent, worldly neighbourhood assume Dermot married Kate for her money. Even he dimly perceives the truth of this, though he likes to think he’s passionately in love with her – hence all the sex – and this enables him to convince himself that he is no parasite. Kate’s self-deceit mirrors his: for her the sex sustains and justifies this mismatched marriage; she’s allowing lust to cloud her judgement and overcome her growing sense of guilt and shame. Even teenaged Louisa perceives that her mother is competing with her older brother Tom’s string of girlfriends, of whom Kate feels jealous, and that in marrying Dermot she thought she’d be getting a sexually fulfilling partner and a loving son. He’s the Oedipal Hamlet to a Gertrude who doubles as Ophelia.

In a series of keenly observed scenes characters and relationships are revealed: Kate at the hairdresser’s, apparently unaware that dyeing her greying hair and ‘making herself look young for her husband’ makes her seem pathetic – or maybe she chooses not to see this. In the opening scene she visits Dermot’s wealthy, elegant mother Edwina, who never rises from her bed before noon, and who greets Kate superciliously:

“That’s a nice suit,” she said in a surprised voice.

Kate had felt just right, perfectly dressed for a day in London, until Edwina had come downstairs. She still thought she could not have chosen better and wondered if what was wrong with the effect – and something was now seen to be – was herself. She hadn’t a London face like her mother-in-law’s, her skin was a different colour and she looked too healthy for the dark suit – a country woman dressed up in London clothes.

In the introduction to this VMC edition Elizabeth Russell Taylor writes that In a Summer Season has a ‘nugatory’ plot, and no ‘concern with consciousness or big themes’. She cites Taylor’s comment that she could ‘never write about tragedies’. But the novel has other elements like those in Hamlet, and there are verbal echoes that subtly indicate this.

When Kate’s closest friend Dorothea died some years earlier, the widower Charles – the two couples had been best friends – left to work overseas, taking his daughter Araminta with him. Halfway through the novel they return, bringing to a crisis Kate’s crumbling confidence in feckless Dermot, as she realises Charles has the cultural sophistication and emotional maturity she’d loved in Alan, and which Dermot so palpably lacks. Araminta has grown up to become a beautiful but shallow young woman, training to be a fashion model. She’s the same age as Kate’s son Tom: 22. He unwisely falls madly in love with her, but she’s not cut out to be his Ophelia, for she enjoys simply flirting and being admired by men, preferring Dermot’s carefree superficiality – and propensity for driving his sports car too fast. All very tangled and ominous.

When the two families resume their intimacy Charles ruefully admits he ‘hardly knows’ his glamorous, vampish daughter. She makes him feel ‘as old as Polonius’, he jokes. Kate’s reply, that she can’t understand why Polonius was always made to look so old, subtly reveals her own discomfort at playing Gertrude to child-like Dermot (and his twin soul, Tom).

Dermot behaves like a petulant child. She gives him ‘motherly smile[s]’, indulging his latest hare-brained money-making scheme (growing mushrooms in an outhouse). When Charles and Kate share a private joke about a woman they know (who’d introduced Kate and Dermot, so it’s not a trivial topic) name-checking a character in Alan and Kate’s favourite novel, The Spoils of Poynton, Dermot, culturally void, is nonplussed and feels excluded – adding to his default emotional state of disgruntled thirty-something moody adolescent, unable to understand why he’s so angry with everyone.

When he finds James’s novel lying around and reads the inscription in it that Alan had written for Kate – a couplet from Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’, with the line ‘Who is so safe as we?’, he again feels excluded and ignorant, ashamed when he realises he’d missed the literary allusion, and that the grown-ups had pretended not to notice in order not to embarrass him. Kate, on the other hand, is aware that the “safety” she’d found with Alan has been lost with Dermot.

Dermot’s mother Edwina, briefly mentioned above, ‘a proper Harrods woman’ in his dismissive opinion because of her passion for shopping, is a poor role model for him. When Kate in the opening scene pays her a duty call (Dermot is too feckless to endure visiting his mother and exposing himself to her misguided attempts to find him a job he might hold down) Edwina proposes her latest business scheme for Dermot – as hare-brained as his mushroom-growing. Sensing Kate’s resistant embarrassment, she says she’s worried about her reprobate son, and had hoped that marriage would ‘make him settle down.’ Her elder son Gordon had ‘always said so’, and he’s a ‘model husband and father… An actuary. “Whatever the hell that may be,” Dermot had said.’ As ‘industrious’ and ‘utterly selfless’ as his father had been (a Claudius figure?). She’d always wondered why Dermot was ‘so different’:

“Perhaps he takes after you,” Kate said. Her voice was bold, and no longer under control.

To her surprise, Edwina’s face softened. She looked dreamy and pleased with herself. “I was certainly a handful when I was a girl,” she said. “Gracious, the escapades, the parties, the young men. ‘She is like a butterfly and no one will ever manage to catch her,’ they used to say.”

“Then Patrick [Dermot’s father] caught you and shut you up all alone in the drawing-room, while he went off to work on his papers.”

“It was the beauty of his voice I couldn’t escape. The Irish in it.”

 

The ironies in this brief exchange are typical of the novel’s subtlety throughout. For Edwina goes on to mention that although Gordon has no ‘trace of it’, Dermot has that Irish brogue ‘only when he was trying to get round [her].’

“Oh, it was a very happy marriage. I had everything I wanted. He worshipped the ground I walked on . I was just a little bored sometimes in the evenings.”

“Harrods being closed,” thought Kate.

 

Kate allows herself this moment of superiority over Edwina’s shallow complacency, but is blind to the similarity of her own Freudian-Shakespearean domestic/marital trap with Dermot.

I’ve posted in the past about these ‘Madame Bovary’ narratives that deal with commuter-belt middle-aged women in despair at the dreariness and lack of fulfilment in their lives, their dim sense of being defined only in terms of their husbands, from Evan Connell’s Mr and Mrs Bridge to Taylor’s own short stories. The ‘summer season’ in which the narrative takes place heightens the sense of temporariness and looming disaster for the meticulously, perceptively anatomised central characters, all with their own defects and thwarted dreams. I particularly like prurient Aunt Ethel, and teenage Louisa with her hopeless schoolgirl crush on the virginal curate with the wonderful name of Father Blizzard.

Apologies for writing at such length; this novel is packed with so much understated, apparently inconsequential but essential and artfully constructed detail that it’s difficult to do it justice in brief.

PS 11 July: I asked fellow bloggers to supply links to any posts they’d done on IASS: in case you don’t scroll down through the comments to find them, here they are:

Liz Dexter, Adventures in Reading, Running and Working From Home

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has links to four of her own posts HERE

…and this link is to her roundup of other bloggers’ posts who’d joined in her readalong – including HeavenAli’s

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics 2011

When I think of Paris in 1958 I picture smoky Left Bank cafés filled with proto-beatnik students from the Sorbonne earnestly discussing Sartre and Camus, or the Algerian War or communism. Sally Jay Gorce, the fun-loving protagonist of The Dud Avocado, haunts similar places, carpeted with students in ‘old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair’, but she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals. Her life revolves around parties and sex, financed for two carefree years by a kindly rich uncle back home in the States.

Dud Avocado coverAs for culture: well, she does pose in the nude for one of the rare artists of her acquaintance who’s got a modicum of talent. More to her taste, as a would-be sophisticate, is the married-with-a-mistress Italian diplomat who plies her with champagne at the Ritz and sex at his bachelor pad – though she admits with typical candour in this breathless first-person narrative that she lacks ‘the true courtesan spirit’. It’s this ingenuous sequence of failures to prove herself as mature and sophisticated as she aspires to be that makes her so charming. It’s that free-spirited, freewheeling voice that propels this novel through a rather silly plot and large cast of characters of varying degrees of decadence and selfishness.

Like a good stand-up comedian, her verve and rapid delivery carry the reader through the less successful jokes and escapades – even the duds (sorry about the pun) are entertaining. Let’s start with the gushing, self-deprecating self-portrait of this Parisian Sally Bowles. From the opening scene we’re told she’s (as usual) inappropriately dressed in her evening gown (it’s 11 in the morning) as her clothes haven’t come back from the laundry. Her hair is the shade of pink ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season.’

The dialogue she quotes herself as using is as demotic and fizzing as the narrative voice; when Larry, the poised, untrustworthy American friend she meets in this opening scene takes her to task for using ‘ridiculous expressions’ like “Holy Cow!” – the only other Americans he’s heard using such colloquialisms are ‘cartoon animals’ like Micky Mouse – she corrects him: “Micky Mice”, and feels the pleasure of someone who’s just scored a debating point, oblivious to the absence of linguistic dazzle she believes she’s just displayed:

Incidentally I haven’t the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn’t do it in America…Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever is the opposite of protective colouring: for war-paint I guess.

Now that is linguistically smart and insightful. This apparently effortless naiveté our heroine specialises in is what gives this otherwise pretty frothy novel an element of literary solidity: that kind of double-edged innocence takes a great deal of ingenuity and wit to pull off – as if Holly Golightly was being tutored by Dorothy Parker.

Let me give a favourite example of this faux-artless technique; this is Sally Jay musing on her on-off lover, that talented artist Jim, a ‘country boy’ from Delaware, who’d managed to turn Paris from the anguished ‘champagne factory’ of tortured artists into a ‘country village’. After posing naked for him she tells us he ‘smelled like new-mown hay.’ As their affair begins Sally Jay knows he really needs ‘some nice, simple, outdoor bohemian girl’ – she has no idea what he sees in her or she in him:

Jim was a bundle of virtues.

See what I mean about D. Parker. Not surprisingly the relationship with Jim is doomed.

This is her with that diplomat, Teddy, who’s just accused her of being a ditzy bobby-soxer, and she agrees cheerfully:

So he gave up. And in a way I kind of gave up myself. I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.

As she says, he should be ‘having witty, elliptical, sexy conversations’ with urbane types, not ‘wasting his time with a sulking, skulking, bad-tempered and very recent schoolgirl.’ Except this narrator is capable of using adjectives like ‘elliptical’, hinting at qualities even Sally Jay doesn’t yet know she possesses deep down. She can show party animals behaving badly (including herself) and reflect on the ‘lubricity’ of ‘these old biddies’. That telescoping of registers is what makes this such a scintillating read – the narrator’s pose of ‘callowness’ enables her to make screwball comedy highly entertaining.

For me the novel was best taken in small doses. Read too much of it and it’s like eating chocolates. But I thoroughly enjoyed those small doses of this nuclear-age Daisy Miller from the New World colliding with a kind of cultural fission with the Old, just emerging from its trauma of the war and finding a new kind of energy and philosophy, but with a transfusion of vivacity from across the Atlantic with this kind of person. Each world benefits and learns from the other, which isn’t always the case in the sober, observing Henry James.

There’s a good lexicographical joke in the final sentence, too.

 

 

 

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.

Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early Modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather a horrid person: Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2011

Despite the surface triviality, there’s something else in Barbara Pym’s novels (links to my other posts at the end), a darker seriousness, a moral frailty or ambiguity. OK, on class and social convention she can be pretty starchy – but even then she’s often surprisingly barbed and acerbic. The parish hall teas, clerical gossip and frettings about high-church rituals and practices are the froth at the top of a bracingly bitter cappuccino.

Pym Glass of Blessings cover A Glass of Blessings is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth – an indolent, self-absorbed, attractive thirty-three-year-old who’s become bored with her comfortable bourgeois life of leisure. When she allows herself to examine this life, she admits to feeling ‘guilty’ about her ‘long idle days’ – but is disinclined to do much about it. Her existence revolves around eating and drinking with her female (and sometimes, male) friends, and shopping for expensive fripperies or clothes; she’s a little too proud of her looks, as she reveals in her interior monologue on p. 5 when the handsome young Piers Longridge has told her she looks ‘particularly charming’:

I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction. Today I was in pale coffee brown with touches of black and coral jewellery. Rodney seldom commented on my appearance now and Piers had that engaging air of making me feel that he meant what he said. I was sorry when we came to a crossroads and he said he must leave me.

This revealing passage is typical of Pym’s mastery of that narrative voice that hints more about what Wilmet fails to note than what she does. It shows she’s vain and bored enough to feel flattered here, assuming that any man who’s complimented her must have taste – and there’s that indication that her civil servant husband Rodney, who’s becoming bald and stout, fails to show the romance and attentive spontaneity Wilmet craves. It will come as no surprise, if I can avoid spoilers, that her views about such admirers are badly misjudged. Not for nothing does the dashing Rocky Napier, who featured in Excellent Women, represent in Wilmet’s nostalgic recollections of her more exciting past as a Wren in wartime Italy the kind of dashing, dastardly and good-looking type that she likes to fall for – only later to be disappointed.

The title of A Glass of Blessings, as revealed near the end, comes from one of those poems Pym’s women characters are fond of quoting, in this case ‘The Pulley’ by George Herbert. Wilmet has sought diversion from her idle routine by attending the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of the novel involves her discovering the secrets and foibles of its clergy and congregation. It’s this aspect that provides most of the novel’s delightfully skewed humour, from the kleptomaniac, camp Bason, the housekeeper/cook for the celibate priests, to Mr Coleman, too fond of the tailor-made silk cassock he affects when serving in church ceremonies, and of his Husky (a make of car, not, as Wilmet vaguely assumes, a ‘large polar dog’). These beautifully sketched characters are deployed with poised, spiky skill by Pym; the plot is secondary to this parade of minor egotists and misfits.

In Herbert’s poem God generously bestows all those ‘blessings’ from his glass, with only ‘rest’ left in the bottom. This he withholds, realising that if he gives humanity this, they will tend to become complacent, and both will ‘lose’. This is the lesson Wilmet learns: to be content with what she has, and appreciate her ‘repining restlessness’ for what it teaches: be more aware of her weaknesses, and more attentive in her relations with other people. She’s far too quick to judge others by their appearance, and complacent about her own moral rectitude because she looks good.

There’s a surprising amount of flirting and erotic dalliance, even among the married characters. Near the end, when Wilmet discovers that dull Rodney has, like her, had his head turned by someone else, she muses this ‘ought to teach me something about myself, even if I was not yet quite sure what it was.’

Her name is taken from the massive family saga The Pillars of the House by now-neglected Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge, who was, like Pym, high church by inclination, and surprisingly frank about all varieties of sexual inclination – as indeed Pym is in this novel.

Another interesting factor in a Pym novel: literary allusions, like clothes, reveal a great deal about character (apart from Herbert, Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Donne and Marvell, for example, are alluded to in this way in the narrative).

Wilmet indulges a suspicion that another handsome young man – the new assistant priest – fancies her; another harsh lesson in self-knowledge is administered when she learns with astonishment that ‘dim and mousy’ (as Wilmet sees her) Mary Beamish has become engaged to him. It’s to Wilmet’s credit that she quickly reproaches herself for such an ‘unworthy thought’. Every time she shows herself as snobbish, she redeems herself with her immediate sense of shame.

Her most painful lesson comes when Piers suggests that Wilmet is too circumscribed by her own ‘narrow select little circle’ and is one of those who are ‘less capable of loving their fellow human beings.’ She’s devastated, and feels close to tears:

Perhaps I had never really known him, or – what was worse – myself. That anyone could doubt my capacity to love!

That ‘perhaps’ is brilliant, and so is the exclamation mark. She goes on to concede that perhaps she’s not as ‘nice’ as she’d thought, and might really be ‘rather a horrid person’ – and this is ‘humiliating’. It’s her Emma and Miss Bates moment.

Despite such defects in her personality, Wilmet engages one’s interest and sympathy. Pym never judges her characters, and she leaves us with the sense that we are all of us as flawed and ‘restless’ as Wilmet.

I had hoped to write about the importance of clothes and appearance, but I’ve been forestalled by this excellent, detailed essay by Sandra Goldstein; I recommend it.

There’s a lot of interesting, sharp observation about the self-centred pomposity of men and their selfish way of taking their long suffering womenfolk for granted. When she’s being clear-eyed Wilmet sees them at a cocktail party as they mostly are: ‘sheepish’, then more like ‘bears’ or snuffling badgers. Unfortunately she loses perspective when they flatter her vanity.

A whole different post could be written about the wonderfully dry, shrewd Sybil (aptly named), Wilmet’s mother-in-law (she announces at the end of a dinner party, as the women are about to leave the men to drink their port: ‘Women are supposed not to like port except in a rather vulgar way’); maybe she’s meant to represent what Wilmet might grow up to be like when she reaches her late sixties and has learnt more about herself, men and life.

My previous Pym posts:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnet

Jane and Prudence

Heaven Ali blog post 2013: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/a-glass-of-blessings-barbara-pym-1958/

 

 

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