Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1990.

 Holland House published John Harvey’s most recent novel, Pax, in 2019 (link to my post on it HERE: the artists Rubens and Van Dyck feature prominently, as well as a fictional modern British artist), and decided not much later to publish his backlist of fiction. He should be better known as a novelist, given the quality and range of his output.

There’s an artistic theme also in his excellent 2014 novel The Subject of a Portrait, which deals with the tangled real-life relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais, his mentor the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin’s young wife Effie. My post on this, with two guest posts, one by the author and the other by the publisher, Michael Flay, are found HERE.

The publishers kindly sent me the three titles I hadn’t posted on previously. First up was his earliest novel, The Plate Shop (1979), set in an ailing English engineering factory. Coup d’Etat (1985) is set in Greece during the brutal military colonels’ junta. You see what I mean about the variety and range of his subject matter.

John Harvey is not a prolific novelist: five novels over a period of four decades. This was probably because of his other career as an eminent academic at Cambridge University, where he specialised in the relationship between visual arts and literature. This interest is reflected in his four non-fiction studies of colour, clothes and illustration (especially in Victorian literature).

Harvey Legend of Captain Space cover At the heart of The Legend of Captain Space is the portrayal of another troubled married couple. Nick is a handsome long-distance lorry driver who dreams of breaking into the world of motor racing. When his wife Sandy gives birth to a baby boy, Davey, she struggles to bond with him. His father nicknames him Captain Space when the boy is a toddler, and delights in being swung in the air.

This portrayal of the struggles of parenthood is the most interesting aspect of Captain Space. The doting maternal figure is a commonplace in the perception and representation of women in much literature and art; Harvey subverts that image wickedly as Sandy is driven literally to run away from her fractious baby at one point. She’s guiltily jealous of the easy familiarity Nick, a not very attentive father, superficially develops with his difficult son. Her child tends to frighten and appal Sandy.

The marriage not surprisingly hits the rocks. Sandy struggles to find a life for herself without the responsibility of being a mother, and begins to realise that she misses Davey after all. Nick meanwhile bounces slobbishly from casual sexual encounters to drunken pub brawls. Will he be able to fulfil his dream of becoming a racing driver, given his undisciplined nature? Will Sandy learn to love her son?

I have to be honest and admit I didn’t really care that much. I didn’t find these characters very appealing. I daresay that exposes me as a limited reader – but I felt the central characters were too caught up in their sordid, selfish obsessions for much empathy to develop for them.

It’s all handled with Harvey’s customary poise and narrative deftness, but I’m afraid this floundering couple failed to sustain my interest consistently.

But there are plenty of positives. Nick isn’t entirely without humane, softer feelings. When he gets a job on a farm, he’s given the job of driving a combine harvester. When he sees blood on the blades, he gets down to check he finds to his horror that he’s inadvertently ‘scythed a rabbit’. When he continues harvesting the crop,

[he] kept watch. When he saw a patch of brown, he stopped and climbed down. He could walk up close to the animal. It crouched flat, its sides quivered, its feet didn’t move. A shining eye watched him come.

‘There, mate, there. Easy as you go.’ He reached out and touched it, its hair was bristly. He stroked it, amazed.

‘It’s OK, captain.’

The style here is characteristic of the rest of the narrative: sparse, unadorned, yet highly evocative and visual (not surprising for an author so sensitive to the visual arts). This passage is typically painterly; it puts me in mind of Dürer’s famous print of a young hare – an impression I suspect John Harvey intended.

I hesitated before posting this, having responded with less enthusiasm than usual to this writer’s work. It doesn’t inhibit me from recommending you try any of his fiction or non-fiction. It’s all alive with humanity and finely observed insights, characters and relationships, the ways in which people portray those lives and connections – to themselves and to others (and sometimes in artistic representations). He’s one of the most gifted and rewarding modern English novelists. I just couldn’t always get on with poor little Davey, Captain Space, and his dysfunctional parents.

Not so magic mountain: Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country. Vintage, 2022. First published 2021

I went last month to Cyprus with Mrs TD for my brother’s wedding (he lives there: wanted sunshine after years of dreich Aberdeen). I read Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Snow Country, on the journey there. I’d probably have given up on it after a hundred pages if I’d started it at home.

I read somewhere that this is part of the author’s ongoing project to write fiction that deals with matters concerning the treatment of people with mental health problems. Unfortunately this plays only a peripheral part in what is in fact a historical romance.

The fractured structure doesn’t help with the dragging pace. Part one is set in Vienna in 1914. Anton is not a psychologist, however, but an aspiring journalist. He falls in love with Delphine, a French governess to a wealthy family’s children. When war breaks out she disappears, leaving him bereft and heartbroken.

Then it’s 1927 and a new set of characters abruptly appears. Part three jumps ahead to 1933, to a mountain-top asylum (hence the novel’s title) for (finally) those people with mental health problems. These various storylines and some of the characters come together. But they do so very slowly, and the asylum setting is pretty inconsequential. The inmates/patients appear only in the background; it’s the proprietors and staff Faulks is interested in. The unsubtle echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain serve little purpose, and come to nothing.

We get a lot of the history of the asylum and the people who founded it; too much, in fact. Faulks’s research is intrusively apparent. The central love stories eventually resolve themselves in ways that could have been deeply moving and satisfying, but somehow they just don’t quite come to life as one would have hoped – it all feels too forced. I felt the author was more interested in the setting and its back story than in these rather insipid characters he’s placed there.

I much preferred the only other Faulks novel I’ve posted on: Paris Echo (link HERE).

England has been sweltering in a heatwave – like most of Europe – this past week. Here in Cornwall it’s usually much cooler, and sea breezes have kept the temperature down. As I write this it’s started raining (with thunder) and it’s more like a normal July summer – but central England is forecast to hit over forty degrees. Hotter than Cyprus!

 

 

EF Benson, Mapp and Lucia

E.F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia. PMC 2004. First published 1935

I need a long preamble for this post.

This year I became a tour guide at Truro Cathedral. To prepare, I had to do a lot of research so that I could come across as well-informed about the building – its history, Gothic revival design, its artefacts, and so on. It was the first newly built cathedral to be completed in England since Salisbury in the thirteenth century; work on it started soon after the diocese of Truro was established in the late 1870s.

Edward White Benson was consecrated its first bishop in 1877 (he went on to become installed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883, a position he held until his death in 1896). While a student at Cambridge he became so interested in the spirit world and the supernatural that he co-founded a ghost society there in 1851. Years later this interest had obviously not waned: Henry James in his notebooks (Jan. 12, 1895) recorded the outline sketch (HJ tended to call these données) of a story told him by Benson, by then the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Addington, his archiepiscopal residence, two days earlier, that clearly gave him the germ of an idea for The Turn of the Screw – which was published in Collier’s Weekly in 1898.

The same notebooks also show that he socialised with two of Benson’s more famous sons: one was Arthur Christopher (1862-1925, published as A.C. Benson), who became Master of Magdalen College, Oxford. He wrote the lyrics to the Elgar song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1902), much loved by jingoistic fogies of the type who go on to become morally corrupt prime ministers and senior members of the British government (the most egregiously despicable of whom, I’m delighted to say as I draft this, is on his way out). His literary output included essays, memoirs, lit crit, and (influenced perhaps by his father) ghost stories.

EF Benson Mapp and Lucia cover The other was Edward Frederic (E.F.) Benson (1867-1940), whose literary output included memoirs, biographies, short stories (he too dabbled in ghost stories; I’ve read a few of these – they’re not exceptional, in the MR James mode), and novels. The Mapp and Lucia series – six novels and a couple of short stories – are perhaps his best-known works. Adaptations of some of them have been adapted for TV drama in the 1980s and more recently. I didn’t watch them at the time, assuming they were a genre of lightweight, sub-Wodehouse upper-middle-class snobbery-posing-as-comedy. Having read Mapp and Lucia, the fourth in the novel sequence, that opinion has been confirmed.

Coincidentally, E.F. lived for many years in Lamb House, Rye (in Sussex, on the English south coast), where Henry James had lived from 1897 to 1914. His brother Arthur was also a tenant there for a time, and so was the author Rumer Godden.

Benson based Lucia’s holiday town, Tilling, on Rye, and her character was probably based on the wife of the local golf course secretary, with whom HJ was also socially acquainted during his time there: like Lucia she was an accomplished pianist and self-appointed leader of the town’s musical life.

The plot of Mapp and Lucia is pretty frothy, but well enough done, if you like that sort of thing (I can’t say I do: this was a duty read). Recently widowed Emmeline Lucas, who prefers to be known (with characteristic pretension) as Lucia by her friends, needs a change of scene from sleepy Riseholme. Her self-imposed purdah has become tedious, and other women are trying to supplant her as queen bee of village society. It would be unbecoming for her to resort to her usual tactics of subversion and bullying to restore herself to the prominence she assumes she deserves, as she had made such a ‘stunt’ of her role of ostentatiously grieving widow.

So she rents Mallards, a huge Queen Anne house in Tilling (and based on Lamb House, with its fine garden room), from Mrs Mapp. She wants change, ‘to get roused up again and shaken and made to tick.’ That gives an idea of the dialogue; it’s not really very witty, is it? She veers between that kind of thirties vernacular, stilted and affectedly snobbish high culture references – she poses as a connoisseur of literature and art as well as music – and toe-curling baby-talk with her camp neighbour and friend, Georgie.

None of these people works for a living. Lucia travels in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. A rivalry quickly develops between Mrs Mapp, who’d been the Lucia of her town until her nemesis arrived, and her new tenant. Each indulges in all kinds of devious tricks, low cunning and downright nastiness to try to gain the upper hand over the other, and social dominance in this community of eccentrics.

Philip Hensher sums all this up well in his introduction:

E.F. Benson’s rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition.

Spot on. I can’t concur with his next statement, however, that all this ‘refined cruelty’ results in ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.’ All I got from this rather nasty novel is the cruelty and snobbish rivalry. There is a certain period charm, but I admit to finding the egotistical antics of Lucia, with her affectation of culture and sophistication (part of the plot involves her fear of being exposed by an Italian speaker of knowing nothing of the language she pretends to be fluent in), left me cold.

Another plot strand deals with her friend Georgie’s despair when his servant announces she’s to marry Lucia’s chauffeur. Who will cosset and pamper him now? He might even have to make his own tea! Poor man.

May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

May Sinclair (1863-1946), The Tree of Heaven. British Library Women Writers, 2020. First published 1917.

 When I checked my archive I was surprised to find it was four years ago that I first posted on a novel of May Sinclair’s : The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922; link HERE). It’s not surprising, given the date of publication of The Tree of Heaven (1917), that its central theme is the calamitous loss of young lives in the carnage of WWI.

This is much more than a war novel, however. Much of the first half is given to a detailed, colourful portrayal of the growing lives of the Harrison children in a London suburb. There are three brothers, Michael (a maverick loner), Nicky (wayward, capricious) and young John. Their only sister, Dorothea, is clever and independent, painfully conscious of her mother’s doting preference for her sons. This might partly account for her joining the burgeoning suffragist movement (of which May Sinclair, a proto-feminist, was an active member).

Sinclair shows how these children’s lives develop according to their temperaments and inclinations. One becomes an avant-garde poet, one of an iconoclastic group that sounds very like the Vorticists. Another impulsively marries a bohemian artist, and lives to regret it.

But looming in the background is always the impending war. The image that dominates the first part of the novel is what the narrator calls ‘the vortex’: the whirlpool of social and cultural pressure and conformity against which Michael rebels (so the Vorticist label is strangely appropriate and inappropriate). He refers to it as the ‘herd soul’, and it’s this that impels so many young men to sign up to the military when war breaks out. This impulse of patriotic ardour is repellent to him.

What becomes of them all is predictably sad. There’s some strange mystical stuff involving one character who appears to have visions of her loved ones at the point of their death. The ash tree in the Harrison garden, which gives its name to the novel, also serves a symbolic, mystical purpose, though I’m not quite sure what that is. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life in Asgard, perhaps.

Once again, as in Harriet Frean, Sinclair is at her best in examining and depicting the lives of spirited, non-conformist people, especially young women, in abrasive contact with a stifling world of convention and (usually male) privilege. But she avoids stereotypes; Dorothea’s feminism is tempered by a distaste for the methods and ideology of the more radical members of its movement. As with so many suffragists, the war caused her to reassess her commitment to the cause, and her own beliefs about fairness and equality.

Frances, the siblings’ mother, eventually wakes up from her trance of maternity and becomes aware of the terrible reality of mortality and mutability.