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

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

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

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

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

Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, it’s a message still relevant today.