Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.

 

 

 

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.

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.