About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Recent reading: regicides, the blitz, Kerala

It’s been silent here for a few weeks. Mrs TD and I have been busy, and then had a pleasant holiday in southern Italy. She passed on to me in that time three books she’d just read.

Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion. (2022) This is another of this prolific author’s highly charged historical novels. This time it’s about one man’s obsessive hunt for the few remaining regicides – the men who’d signed the death warrant of Charles I. The civil war is over, the Cromwell puritans have had their day and monarchy is restored. The title refers to the act of parliament that deceitfully offered leniency to the regicides; those who came forward expecting amnesty were imprisoned, tortured and brutally executed.

The first half is far too slow, but then the pace picks up as the relentless hunter tracks down his prey. They’re hiding in various friendly places in New England. It isn’t until almost the very end that we learn (in the best spirit of this genre of ‘thriller-historical reimaginings’) the reason for his manic determination to find them.

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch. (Virago, 2006). Much more to my taste. It’s a passionate account of the lives of various women during the blitz in London between 1941-47. Waters daringly structures the chronology in reverse order, so we begin at the end, and have to figure out from weirdly incongruous clues and actions what caused these characters to behave the ways they do with each other.

There are some heartbreaking love stories and not-quite-convincing intrigue about the reason the brother of one of these women wound up in jail, and what he did on release. But it’s a really engaging, largely successful story of how the war gave women a rare opportunity to become themselves, untrammelled by societal  and gender expectations. There’s also a lot of business about a special gold ring that puts Tolkien in the shade. Recommended.

Abraham Verghese, The Covenant of Water. (Grove Press, 2023) It’s interesting to read a family saga set in that part of southern India now known as Kerala. The author succeeds in making us feel the teeming environment of the inhabitants of a small rural community there in a climate and setting that’s often harsh and unforgiving.

The portentous title points to a central plot feature: generations of this family have died directly or indirectly as a result of an uncanny ‘condition’: a morbid fear of water and drowning.

We follow several generations of this family, from a 12-year-old girl (Marriam) who’s married off to a much older man, through her children’s and grandchildren’s family lives. There’s a great deal of joy and pain, bereavement and love. The central mystery of that ‘condition’ becomes the research interest of Marriam’s granddaughter. She studies medicine and becomes a doctor, determined to trace the genetic flaw that explains what had largely been explained away as a kind of curse. A Scots doctor who ends up in this region also plays a significant part, with a very obviously signalled twist near the end.

It’s an enjoyable read, but the author’s day job as a doctor becomes intrusively apparent rather too often, as we are given lengthy medical scenes involving many of the huge cast of characters. That’s another aspect I found confusing: there are just way too many of them, and the narrative seems never-ending (the book weighs in at over 700 pages). At its best, however, this is a highly readable, unusual, densely packed novel.

Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional

Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional. Sceptre, 2023 

I posted four years ago on Australian author Charlotte Wood’s previous novel, The Weekend (link HERE). The producer of the BBC World Service programme World Book Club contacted me to invite me (with others from around the world) to pose some questions to Charlotte during the recording of an interview/phone-in on that novel. The programme was broadcast on 11 April (link HERE), and it’s well worth listening to on the BBC website: Charlotte gives engaging and thoughtful insights into her creative processes.

I referred in my post on The Weekend to the barbed revelations spliced with wit and humour in her narrative; Stone Yard Devotional has a more meditative, reflective tone. It’s a very different reading experience, rewarding and deeply moving.

The unnamed narrator tries a weekend retreat at a rural Australian abbey inhabited by nuns and a few oblates (a word she is unfamiliar with at first, and I had to look it up to remind myself) and itinerant visitors. Soon afterwards, for reasons that are only obliquely presented, she decides to become a permanent resident. I say that because she’s a lapsed Catholic, and views the rituals, prayers and worship of the nuns with a dispassionate, unbeliever’s detachment and scepticism. Her presence there has more to do it seems with the desire (as another character puts it) to become invisible to the outside world. It’s a kind of spiritual and emotional cleansing, perhaps.

There are various references to her life in that outside world. There are passing references to a man who was probably her husband or partner. She was an activist in that worldly life for an ecological organisation. Her commitment to green causes and reverence for all living things were formed, we learn at various points in the narrative, from the influence of her mother. She was an eco-warrior before this became fashionable, and was viewed with suspicion by her contemporaries because of it.

Most of the narrative consists of diary-like first-person reflections on the protagonist’s past experience. She tells of shameful incidents in which she played an ignoble role while at her Catholic girls’ school (and afterwards). One of the targets of the schoolgirls’ cruelty plays a key part in the story that unfolds during this abbey retreat.

She’s also frank and honest about her previous thoughtless acts of racism and other kinds prejudiced behaviour. Such attitudes were shamefully prevalent not so long ago, and it’s salutary to be reminded that they haven’t completely gone away.

Other events in her past drift by like linked short stories. Wood’s prose is a pleasure to read: it’s deceptively simple and lucid, yet conveys depths of feeling and reflection that other more wordy writers fail to pull off. Reading this novel is like being given direct access to the innermost thoughts of a troubled woman. She has an excruciating sense of guilt and contrition at some of her actions in the past.

Forgiveness becomes a central theme: the desire for absolution that she finds beyond the capacity of any formal religious intervention, but is possibly available to those who submit themselves to a different, personal kind of disciplined, solitary contemplation, confession and reflection.

Redemption and forgiveness do possibly emerge for her in powerful, sensitively handled scenes in which she interacts with a former victim of her unreflecting cruelty. What is forgiveness, and why is it sought and given?

 A kind of peace is painfully achieved as she writes the confessional that forms this narrative.

Mrs TD read this novel after me, and also found it quietly moving, but she didn’t care for the sections about a plague of mice, and especially the part played by the nuns’ chickens in attempting to control the mouse population.

My thanks to Cornwall library service for providing this book.

Anthony Powell, Dance, vol. 4

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 4 (Arrow Books)

Vol. 10: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) The strange title derives from the nickname for the seedy left-wing jobbing journalist, Bagshaw (later involved in television; the final three volumes of Dance portray the rapid changes in British cultural and social life in the decades after the war). It became attached to him according to one of two variations on a sleazy sexual encounter he’s alleged to have been involved in.

Nick has returned to university to research a book on Burton (author of Anatomy of Melancholy – a strong literary influence on this final trio of novels). Various characters from the early Oxford novels in this sequence reappear. But the key developments in vols. 10-12 are to do with the curious denouement of the fiery relationship between Widmerpool, now a Labour MP, and his destructively volatile and promiscuous wife, Pamela.

In vol. 10 we learn that Nick’s wife Isobel has given birth to a boy, but we hear very little about their personal lives. There are passing mentions of their children as they grow up, but the narrative focus is on the dance of characters taking place around them.

Vol.11: Temporary Kings (1973) In the summer of 1958 Nick attends a cultural conference in Venice. A number of new characters emerge, many of whom become entangled with key dancers from previous novels – especially the late novelist X. Trapnel, and the Widmerpools. Pamela’s extra-marital affairs exacerbate her husband’s problems in his professional and political life.

Vol. 12: Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975) This novel takes place during the peak of the era of youthful counter-cultural rebellion in the late sixties and early seventies. I found it the least satisfying of the Dance sequence. Powell’s satirical depiction of the cult of hippies that features centrally seemed to me uncharacteristically crabby and heavy-handed. He portrays its charismatic but sinister young leader, with the unlikely name of Scorpio Murtlock, as wielding a corrosive and autocratic influence over his gullible, besotted followers. Because he and his cult members play a major role in this final volume of the novel sequence, my response was to feel slightly disappointed that it ended this way.

Widmerpool’s life and career has taken a new and unlikely turn: he also falls under Murtlock’s spell. A biography of X. Trapnel by one of the characters introduced in the Venice section also causes much of the drama here. Some of the other threads involving earlier characters in the narrative are more successfully tied up. A priceless Modigliani drawing neatly does this job as far as Pamela and some of those who became disastrously entangled with her are concerned. Art and artists (as well as music to set the tempo for the dancer-characters) play an important, deftly symbolic part in Dance.

One of Burton’s ‘torrential passages’ from Anatomy rounds of this superb sequence of novels with a pleasing flourish; it sums up (and reflects) many of the key themes of the twelve novels and highlights Powell’s method as a unique literary artist and master of language; here’s a short, edited extract from a long and brilliant quotation:

‘I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions…daily musters and preparations…which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks…peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears…Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed…’

Wouldn’t ‘Ordinary Rumours’ make a great title for a Powell novel?! My thanks to Cornwall Libraries for supplying Vols 2-4 of this novel sequence.

Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer

Tom Baldwin, Keir Starmer: the biography, (William Collins 2024)

Tom Baldwin’s biography of the current leader of the British Labour opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, follows a fairly conventional chronological pattern. It starts with his upbringing in a small Surrey town.

His father was a skilled toolmaker. This would have positioned him, in our British class-conscious social system, as working class, not meriting the esteem accorded to the privileged beneficiaries of inherited wealth and a private school education. A stern, undemonstrative man, his father’s patriarchal approach to family life led to Starmer becoming ostensibly an emotionally reticent person – except with the rest of his family and his close friends (including fellow footballers – a sport he is genuinely passionate about), who are all still very important to him.

His mother suffered from a serious illness which rendered her more or less an invalid for most of her adult life. Starmer was deeply influenced by her fortitude and her resilient response to her disability, and her refusal to wallow in self-pity or curtail those physical activities of which she was capable, such as hill walking in the family’s beloved Lake District, where they spent most of their holidays. He grew up with a deeply ingrained set of moral values, as well as a sense of decency, probity and integrity.

After reading law at the universities of Leeds and then Oxford, he became a top human rights lawyer who worked on some famous high-profile cases. When he became Director of Public Prosecutions, he was often accused of betraying those principles by which he had previously lived and worked: he was seen by some to have changed sides by turning prosecutor. Having vigorously upheld the right of all, even those accused of serious crimes, to a proper legal defence, he was portrayed by some as demonstrating double standards and shifting his moral position – an accusation also levelled at him frequently in his more recent political career.

Baldwin carefully shows that the truth is more complex than this black-and-white view. Starmer is obsessed with the nature of justice: it involves treating everyone caught up in the legal process with fairness and even-handed decency. That means that just as all accused of crime have the right to a proper defence, all victims have the right to a legal system that operates without prejudice or bias in its prosecution of perpetrators of crime.

This deeply principled foundation has continued to serve him in his subsequent career as a politician and member of parliament. When he became leader of the Labour party, he worked immediately to eradicate the antisemitism that had become endemic in parts of the membership. His determination to do the right thing, having carefully weighed – as a good lawyer should – all evidence, resulted in his removing many Labour members from the party. This included dealing with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn; Starmer had him barred from active involvement in parliamentary politics. These were moves that provoked outrage in some quarters, and the left of his party turned on him aggressively.

So far he has ridden the storm and managed to demonstrate to all but his most blinkered critics that his political positions are determined by the deeply-felt convictions and principles mentioned earlier – not by the factionalism, posturing and grandstanding that tend to characterise the performance of most of our recent politicians.

This is largely a ‘warts and all’ portrait: it is not a hagiography. Baldwin acknowledges that Starmer can seem when in the media spotlight to be lacking in charisma, and overly lawyerly in his style of politics. Many doubt, as a consequence, that he is prime minister material. But Baldwin, in my view, successfully dispels such doubts.

Starmer is not the stereotypical showman politician, the charlatan, the boosterish prankster who takes nothing seriously, least of all the laws and standards they profess to uphold (certain recent populist Tory PMs come to mind). It’s maybe a strength in his demeanour that he doesn’t indulge in showy rhetoric or soundbites that conceal a lack of substance or political or moral rigour. If he is at times over-cautious, and is capable of changing his mind in the light of new developments or information, that’s maybe no bad thing – not a sign of weakness or infirmity of purpose.

Some biographies, especially those featuring politicians, can be stodgy, plodding reads. Baldwin’s portrait of Starmer is well-evidenced, balanced and highly readable. No matter what your politics, I’d recommend this biography for its depiction of a serious, thoughtful politician.

Anthony Powell, A Dance…vol. 3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 3

Vol. 7: The Valley of Bones (1964) The title arises from a reading in church from Ezekiel (the famous song ‘Dry Bones’ derives from the same Old Testament source). WWII has started and Nick is a lowly officer at a training unit. There’s a whole lot of new characters: fellow officers are variously pompous, officious or ineffective, or a combination of these. The other ranks are slightly less eccentric, but still full of quirks.

David Pennistone is one of the most interesting of the recurring characters; Nick had met him years earlier at the famous society party thrown by Mrs Andriadis (other characters from this event will pop up later). He’s an intellectual, reading Vigny on the military life when Nick encounters him on a train, and thinking of writing a piece on Descartes. He’ll feature fairly prominently in the next few volumes.

Nick learns more about his former lover Jean and her wayward attitude to the men in her life. More complications arise with his wife’s extended family and other former friends and acquaintances. The dance involving partners changing and dropping out continues, with several surprising developments.

Nick by this time early in the war had written, he says, ‘three or four’ novels (the imprecision is telling). But now, as war becomes ever more overwhelming, he feels too ‘inhibited’ to write. There’s an unsurprising darkness, as well as the usual dazzling satire, in this wartime trilogy.

Humour is wickedly threaded into the more serious aspects of the narrative – and the depiction of characters. One of Nick’s fellow officers remarks that he’s glad he’s married: it means he ‘[doesn’t] have to bother any more about women.’

8. The Soldier’s Art (1966) Widmerpool, as patronising, sinister and creepy as ever, is now Nick’s officious but ineffective superior at their unit in N. Ireland. He’s embroiled in childish, jealous rivalries with his peers, desperate to seem more efficient than everyone else, but succeeding only in appearing ludicrous. He’s a superb creation, probably the most interesting and complex character in the sequence: a comic monster, summed up in this withering comment from Nick –

There was something impressive in his total lack of interest in the fate of all persons except himself. Perhaps it was not the lack of interest in itself – but the fact that he was at no pains to conceal this within some more or less hypocritical integument.

The ‘dance’ of characters brings more of Nick’s former acquaintance into play, still relentlessly changing partners with each other. Former school friend Stringham pops up as a lowly mess waiter, revealing the class system operating as pervasively as it does in the outside world.

There’s a fair amount of rueful reflection on the vagaries of military life in time of war. There are also some shocking revelations; some characters die in the Blitz.

9. The Military Philosophers (1968) Time has moved on; this volume covers a period roughly 1942-45. First a captain, then a major, Nick is at a war office post, working at first in liaison with Polish allies, then with others. The massacre of Polish officers at Katyn forest casts a dark shadow over this final novel in the wartime sequence.

Widmerpool is again his superior officer, as arrogant and selfish as ever. There are more reappearances of usual suspects, but the most striking new arrival is Pamela Flitton (played by Miranda Richardson in the 90s TV version, depicted on the front cover of this volume).

She’s a glamorous ATS driver for Nick’s unit. She emerges as an egregious flirt with a destructive surliness in her treatment of her various conquests. Nick learns that she’s Stringham’s niece (by various complex marital connections).

There are more fatalities among Nick’s circle as the Nazis, losing the war after D-Day, deploy their final lethal onslaught on London: V1 and then V2 rockets. Pamela is revealed to have been involved in a sinister, clandestine plot in Cairo that included others of Nick’s acquaintance.

The tone becomes increasingly Proustian – not just in terms of the meandering prose style, but also in the settings (Nick finds himself on a mission to a northern French resort that turns out to be Proust’s Balbec), and there’s a long quotation from this parallel roman fleuve.

In his military role, Nick learns more painful lessons: after witnessing bad behaviour by a senior commander, he recalls another of philosopher Pennistone’s more cynical insights: that such officers need mollycoddling; they’re like ‘ballerinas’ in another world – Borneo, for example. The fawning obsequiousness Nick had formerly deprecated in some junior soldiers in their dealings with top brass he now realises is essential for survival in this army.

Between the Potsdam conference and the first atom bomb, Nick hears that Pamela has become engaged to the last person he’d have expected. At a social event she displays her usual venomous contempt for her new beau: this does not bode well for the embarrassed fiancé.

After attending the victory service at St Paul’s, Nick meets another key figure from his past. This is going to complicate his life in fascinating ways. I’m looking forward to the final three volumes in this brilliantly realised sequence. How will he fare in post-war civilian life? How will he manage to step his way through the next stage of the dance?

 

A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Bloomsbury paperback, 2003; 20221)

Mrs TD urged me to read this novel when she’d finished it – especially as its protagonist shares my family name. Louise Kennedy writes about the region she grew up in: the Belfast area of N. Ireland. Trespasses is a powerful novel set there early (late 1960s-early 70s) in what became known as ‘the troubles’.

Her central character is Cushla Lavery. Her first name is Irish Gaelic for ‘beat of my heart’ or ‘darling’. One of the features of this divided community is that people are usually identifiable as either Protestant or Catholic by their names (‘Cushla’, being a Gaelic name, would immediately indicate that she was Catholic), the schools they attended, or the towns or areas they live in.

Cushla’s family pub is in a relatively quiet and peaceful area, in that theirs is a Catholic-run business, but the clientele are largely local Protestants (some of them associated with the paramilitaries), or British soldiers who don’t interact with the locals, including Cushla, very sensitively. They were supposed to be peacekeepers and restorers of order, but their behaviour (in Kennedy’s fictional scenario) is hardly likely to make the volatile atmosphere any calmer.

Cushla is a young primary school teacher, and takes under her wing a seven-year-old Catholic boy whose family are in a dangerously exposed position, as they live in a predominantly Protestant part of town. There’s a touching love story. Not surprisingly, given this tinder-box environment, not everything turns out well.

This might all sound a bit grim, and it is. Some of Kennedy’s characters are intended to show how intolerance and prejudice fuelled the flames of the troubles (a fiery priest, a rather creepy headteacher, those boorish soldiers). But there are others portrayed with such warmth and sympathy that the humanity and potential for love and kindness are shown as not entirely destroyed in the midst of all the terrorist atrocities, bombs and killings.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to that very sketchy outline. As a person whose family has its roots in this region, I found Trespasses particularly moving: despite all the pain and suffering, the hatred and bigotry that form the background to the novel, Kennedy succeeds, while avoiding sentimentality or over-simplification, in making us care for her central characters, and believe that the forces of decency, humanity and kindness can still just about survive in such dreadful circumstances.

Powell, A Dance…vol.2

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time vol 2 (Arrow Books, 2000)

I posted in January about the first in this sequence of 4 bulky 3-volume editions of the 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. My response then was less than enthusiastic. Now I’ve finished the second volume, which contains these three novels:

At Lady Molly’s (1957)

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)

The Kindly Ones (1962) – the title refers to the Eumenides or The Furies, the Greek deities of divine vengeance and retribution.

I’m now firmly hooked: A Dance to the Music of Time is brilliant – witty, and written with a purring elegance beneath which there’s a wickedly sharp critical portrayal of the (mostly upper-middle-class) large cast of characters.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is now (it’s the mid-30s for most of these 3 novels, and ends with the start of WWII) a novelist of moderately successful standing. He’s got over his love affair with Jean, who’d married a former school acquaintance of his, Bob Duport, and settled into married life with Isobel Tolland – one of a large number of siblings (their aunt is the ‘Lady Molly’ of the first novel here). He makes some alarming discoveries, however, about the true nature of Jean (and, for that matter, many of the other characters) – he’s not usually the most discerning or omniscient of narrators, despite his capacity for turning an epigrammatic phrase, and his shortcomings in reading people, especially women, are starkly exposed again.

It’s difficult to do justice to the subtlety of Powell’s achievement in these novels in a short space here; the slowly accreting narrative and lack of notable incident are central to his purpose. He takes his time in demonstrating the relative skill or ineptitude of his creations, as they join partners and then change them. Widmerpool, the eccentric figure of fun from school days, pops up regularly, and is becoming an ever more complex player in the drama: at times seemingly the solipsistic fool, but always vaguely menacing.

As in Max Ophuls’ excellent 1950 film (based on an Arthur Schnitzler play from 1897) ‘La Ronde’, it’s the inevitably cyclical turn of events, the rhythmical change of partners in that looping dance through time, that underlies and governs things. The participants have far less agency than they tend to realise. Nick relates what he sees of this with varying degrees of understanding; as a bemused participant himself, his view is as partial as the rest of his acquaintance.

I’ll try to give some examples of the exquisite style and tone of this deceptively languid sequence of novels.

Early on (p. 32) there’s Nick’s friend Barnby’s Wildean insight into the nature of the minor aristocracy invoked in describing the ‘lonely, derelict character’ of uncle Alfred Tolland (ie uncle to the siblings including Lady Isobel), who’d sat morosely next to Nick at one of their former school’s old boys’ dinners – these references to scenes in earlier novels in the sequence regularly appear, all part of the meticulously constructed architecture of the novels. Barnby had quipped that ‘melancholy is the curse of the upper classes’ (32).

Character description is another rewarding feature of Powell’s approach. These generally appear in the big set pieces that punctuate the narrative, such as parties at Lady Molly’s, drinks in seedy London pubs, or meals at the Chinese (formerly Italian) restaurant named in the second novel here.

Miss Weedon is the former secretary to Mrs Foxe; she takes over supervision of her employer’s drunken grown-up son, Charles Stringham. Nick remembered her looking at Charles when he and Nick were boys with ‘adoration’; she’d been his sister’s governess as well. Charles, she declared, had never grown up. She only tolerates conversation with Nick at one of the many parties he attends because he’d said he and Charles had been friends since school. She looks at Nick ‘with a kind of chilly amiability’. As a boy, Nick had thought her ‘formidable’:

I still found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.

Later, when she’s revealed as engaged to an elderly general (a friend of Nick’s family), he concludes that this is consistent with her ‘taste…for power’ – she enjoyed her ability to control wayward Charles, and now sees the general as another such project (p. 163).

Nick meets Jean’s ex, Bob Duport, in a seedy hotel – he’d gone there to arrange the funeral of his bad penny uncle Giles, another recurring character, who’d been staying there when he died. Nick had never liked Bob, and was even more inclined to antipathy when Bob reveals that Jean had been unfaithful not only to her husband, but to her other lovers (including, unknown to Bob, Nick himself). She had orchestrated the end of the affair with Nick with a lie about having to move abroad. Nick realises he’s joined a long list of men she’d treated badly. He concludes, with bitterness and resignation:

For the moment, angry, yet at the same time half inclined to laugh, I could not make up my mind what I thought. This was yet another example of the tricks that Time can play within its own folds, tricks that emphasise the insecurity of those who trust themselves over much to that treacherous concept. I suddenly found that what I had regarded as immutable – the not entirely unsublime past – roughly reshaped by the rude hands of Duport. That was justice, I thought, if you like. (p. 655)

Powell is perhaps overfond of that unusual double negative structure that Orwell advised against in English usage (‘not un- something’).

Nick muses further on Miss Weedon’s ability to capture the heart of the worldly old general:

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

‘Valéry asks why one has been summoned to this carnival,’ [Nick’s friend] Moreland once said, ‘but it’s more like blind man’s buff. One reels through the carnival in question, blundering into persons one can’t see, and, without success, trying to keep hold of a few of them.’ (691)

‘Carnival’ here is a variation on the recurring metaphor at the heart of these novels: the revolving performance in which the performer-dancers are not entirely aware of the rhythms, the formal pattern, that influence their movement.

Which returns me to a quotation I included in my first post on A Dance to the Music of Time, from p.2 of the first volume of three novels: ‘they [AP’s characters] can be unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), First Stories

My Everyman hardback copy of Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (2019) runs to 860 pages of fairly small print. This post will therefore focus on the first section – a collection of 14 stories first published as Encounters in 1923, when she was only 24 years old.

The usual approach to consideration of a collection of stories like this is to identify common threads or themes. But each of these stories is a finely crafted entity in its own right. If there are such themes, they’re probably to do with people using plenty of fine-sounding language but failing to communicate – or to articulate what they really mean (if they even know themselves). There’s very little action or plot in the stories; instead we see people gossiping, assessing each other (often not very favourably), scoring points, deflecting, struggling with social expectations.

The first story, ‘Breakfast’, published when Bowen was only 21, is a good example. A man steels himself to join the breakfast group in the house where he’s a paying guest. ‘Behold, I die daily’, are his unspoken thoughts as he descends from his room to join the unsympathetic group already eating. His landlady, the owner of the house, passive-aggressively chides him for being late to the meal, then proceeds to accuse him of profligacy in losing collar-studs – his excuse for his lateness.

The story sets the tone for most of what follows. There’s wit and psychological perception in the portrayal of these sparring characters. Bowen’s modernist approach means there’s a lot of free indirect thought, disconnected or inconclusive musings and dreams, epiphanies and obliquely observed scenes which reveal depths and complexities in the characters that the reader has to work at figuring out. It’s worth the effort. Atmosphere prevails over exposition.

Bowen was born to a wealthy Protestant Irish family. Her mother’s ancestors included a Viscount Powerscourt (a fine estate in Co. Wicklow; I attended a wedding there with Mrs TD some years ago when a relative of hers had his reception in the big house – now an upmarket hotel. Her father as a lad had climbed the rockface behind the waterfall in the grounds).

The author spent her childhood summers at her father’s family home, Bowen Court in Co. Cork, but she lived mostly in England, moving there with her mother permanently in 1907 when her father had a mental breakdown. When her mother died in 1912, when Elizabeth was only 13, she went to live with great-aunts in England. This peripatetic early start to life, and the traumatic events she experienced, seem to have influenced her writing. Another aspect of these stories includes characters who are dislocated, disengaged, unfulfilled. Maybe as a person who was perceived by many in Ireland as not a true Irishwoman, and by the English as a colonial, she felt inclined to write about outsiders, people estranged from those around her.

She conveys the passion and anger felt by a small girl when her mother isn’t home to lavish praise on her for the essay her teacher had read out to her class at school. Her immature instinct is to lash out when the mother finally appears.

There are wives who feel they live in an ‘intolerable cage’, like the woman in ‘The Evil that Men Do -‘. She receives a florid love-letter from a man she’d met at a poetry reading, and with whom she’d shared a bus-ride afterwards. This leaves her in a romantic flutter; she feels she’s lived her life ‘on the defensive’. She doesn’t like her solicitor husband any more, she concludes. He doesn’t even glance at the poetry books she leaves lying around. When she sat gazing at the fire for hours, or out of the window, he never asked her what she was thinking about (T.S. Eliot used a similar trope about the same time). He often left her alone with the children and servants for days on end (the characters in these stories usually have servants and grand houses). She bemoans this solitude, but also embraces it: ‘of course solitude was her only escape and solace.’ She adds this self-consciously poetic thought to the postscript of the letter she’s writing to her effusive admirer.

The story’s conclusion provides an example of Bowen’s capacity for sly humour: the unsentimental, neglectful husband buys his wife a pretty gift, and she’s instantly won over. Her romantic fantasies vanish, and she’ll never know that for fateful reasons her correspondent will never read her letter.

This is not the only story in which a married woman (or one with a selfish, possessive brother) has a third, shadowy man in the background. In ‘The Shadowy Third’ this third person is the late wife of a man whose second wife, as in Rebecca, is uncomfortably aware of this ghostly, possibly better-loved predecessor.

Loneliness is also apparent in the schoolmistress’s life in ‘Daffodils’. She tries to engage with a trio of her girl pupils, inviting them as they pass her house to take tea with her. But she puts them off by berating them for their lack of perception of life or fully ‘seen’ things, symbolised by those Wordsworthian flowers that she’d just bought. ‘Nothing ever comes new to them…or impresses them…Their sentimentality embarrasses me.’ It’s no surprise when they up and leave, grateful to escape this sad woman; they for their part cattily agree the teacher ‘has never lived.’

It’s difficult to convey the range and variety of these exquisite stories. I’ve possibly over-emphasised the connections between them, and their poignancy; there are also many differences, and each story is a vignette in its own right. I particularly liked ‘All Saints’, a story about an eccentric, ‘theatrical’, rather vampish middle-aged woman who leaves a vicar ‘nonplussed’ when she asks if she can donate a stained-glass window to his church: ‘I think coloured windows are so beautiful. They make me feel so religious and good.’ She wants it to be an All Saints window, but her idea of what constitutes a saint is highly unconventional and definitely not Christian. No wonder the vicar is shocked and wrong-footed.

Two novels by Elizabeth Bowen that I’ve posted about left me less than impressed, although I thoroughly enjoyed pre-blog readings of The Heat of the Day (1929) and The Last September (1948). Those two are:

Friends and Relations (1931) HERE

Eva Trout (1968) HERE

More on choughs

I’ve posted several times in the past about those handsome, red-footed, red-beaked corvids: choughs. They were once widespread in the British Isles, but are now particularly associated with Cornwall, where they started to breed and flourish again early this century.

I came across recently a sequence of online newspaper articles that surprised me: images of choughs are to be seen in a convent in Salamanca, Spain, in the region of Castile and León.

The Real Convento de Santa Clara there, founded in 1238, now an art museum, has a remarkable range of over 150 medieval heraldic paintings, concealed for centuries by an 18C false ceiling. Among these are devices or representing choughs (unfortunately I can’t post an image for copyright reasons).

Spanish researchers recently concluded that they are the emblem of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and lord chancellor) murdered at the encouragement of Henry II in 1170 because of a conflict over royal and clerical power. Repenting of this act, Henry instructed his descendants to venerate Thomas, who was canonised as a martyr saint in 1173.

So how did this troublesome priest become associated with choughs? According to one set of legends, after his violent murder by sword-wielding knights, a crow hopped (or flew?) into the cathedral and stepped and dipped its beak on the bloody corpse – it became a chough.

Among Henry’s descendants was his granddaughter, Queen Berenguela I of Castile (1180-1246, usually called Berengaria by the English), daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor Plantagenet – who was herself the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, promoter of the Angevin empire (named after English realms in Anjou and elsewhere).

She represented the history of Plantagenet and Angevin monarchs encrypted in this sequence of painted heraldic devices and other images on the wooden ceiling: the choughs appear next to a golden castle, emblem of the kingdom of Castile.

Spanish researchers have concluded that Berengaria came to Salamanca at the end of her life to tell her royal family’s story through this ceiling iconography and re-establish her position as Queen of León, Lady of Salamanca, and mother of saintly Ferdinand III, reconquerer of Córdoba and Seville. She unified the kingdoms of León and Castile through her marriage to Alfonso IX.

The researchers recalled that the coat of arms of the city of Canterbury, devised many years after Thomas’s martyrdom, depicts three red-beaked choughs beneath the golden lion of the Plantagenets. So the Cornish chough had become synonymous with the cult of St Thomas, and by extension with this early medieval royal dynasty, and its links with Spanish royalty. The shields on the ceiling of this Salamanca convent appear to predate the taking up of this distinctive bird by the Becket family, and the city of Canterbury, by centuries.

Two English brothers, who seem to have known Thomas and fled England after his martyrdom, founded a church dedicated in his name very near to the Salamaca convent a few years later. The cult of St Thomas became one of the most powerful not just in England, as Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrated in the 14C, but across Europe.

By the way, Berengaria’s aunt, who had the same name (but with the sobriquet ‘of Navarre’), was shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus on her way to join her royal fiancé, Richard I (the Lionheart king of England), who had embarked on the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. She was held hostage by the Byzantine ruler of Cyprus until rescued by her gallant husband, who went on to conquer the whole island and add it to his empire.

I’ve occasionally mentioned in earlier posts my childhood year in Cyprus. We lived near a village called Berengaria, after the English queen who rarely met her crusading husband, and didn’t visit England until after his death. When she did, she was said to have been present at the translation of St Thomas’s relics in 1220.

After some more online digging I found that choughs feature in a number of other coats of arms. Among them are those of two famous English Thomases, who perhaps a little presumptuously adopted the Canterbury martyr’s emblem as a kind of homage.

Wolsey coat of arms

Attribution: SemperAdiuvans, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) was a cardinal and statesman, and an early influence on the reign of Henry VIII, for whom he rose to the rank of lord chancellor and chief adviser. This was also the coat of arms of Christ Church, Oxford (established originally by Wolsey as Cardinal College, then developed and renamed by Henry VIII). That’s Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat (galero) at the top.

The four blue leopard faces (yes, they are stylised leopards) and shield were used by the Dukes of Suffolk (Wolsey was born in Ipswich in that county). The two Cornish choughs indicate that he was a patron of Thomas Becket.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), so brilliantly depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, was an adviser to his early mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and a lawyer and MP for Taunton. He skilfully avoided falling out of favour after the downfall of Wolsey, and for six years served as eminence grise and chief minister to Henry, until the volatile king had him executed for treason. This was his coat of arms from 1532-37, with two choughs central; it became more elaborate after his son’s marriage in 1537 to (queen) Jane Seymour’s sister, Elizabeth:

Thomas Cromwell coat of arms 1532-37

Attribution: Ammelida, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I noted in my post of 27.8.16 that, according to legend, King Arthur didn’t really die; he was transformed into a chough, whose red beak and feet symbolise his bloody and violent end. This is why it’s still considered unlucky to kill a chough.

It pleases me that these splendid, iconic birds have generated such a rich and varied set of associations and stories.

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1-3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow, 2000)

 I took this one-volume paperback edition of the first three novels in Anthony Powell’s acclaimed 12-novel sequence with me on our Christmas-NY visit in Spain. The three titles are:

A Question of Upbringing (1951)

A Buyer’s Market (1952)

The Acceptance World (1955)

There’s a huge cast of characters, but the central group consists of a few young men who met at their prestigious boarding school (said to be based on Eton, where Powell was a pupil). We then follow their progress into the privileged world associated with their class and background: Oxford University, then what follows for men of this social class.

Some of them become associated with successful businessmen, and they either thrive or flounder in this environment, depending on their prowess in the dance orchestrated by time (the title of this novel sequence comes from a symbolic painting by Poussin): sometimes they rise then fall. As the narrator puts it on p.2, they can be ‘unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

The narrator and central figure is Nicholas Jenkins, who becomes a novelist while working for a publisher of art books. As a consequence, the worlds of aesthetes and artists, writers and various bohemians come into not always harmonious contact with the politicians, high-powered entrepreneurs and fashionable socialites who populate the narrative.

I might have abandoned this book if this hadn’t been the only one I took with me on my travels. I found the fruity prose style and languorous narrative pace irksome at first. The characters were largely unappealing, sometimes cruel and heartless. But gradually I became attuned to the narrator’s presentation of this not very attractive scenario. The bland acceptance by these brash young men in the 1920s and 30s is placed against the turbulent political events of the time, such as the hunger marches of impoverished workers, and the first stirrings of fascism.

The shameless elitism, amorality and cloying sense of privilege in most of the characters, I began to appreciate, is portrayed with an element of subtle irony. There’s no overt criticism of their manners or behaviour, but the perspective of Nicholas, who views them all with a novelist’s appraising eye, ensures that they’re seen for what they are – though his judgements aren’t always reliable.

Like his former classmates, he has problems with his love life. The women that Powell has them become involved with are less successfully realised, but perhaps that’s part of Powell’s plan. They’re viewed through the eyes of the men who desire or seduce them. That’s possibly another aspect of the flawed world view that they fail to discern in themselves – Nicholas included – although he comes closest to assessing with any kind of perspicuity how useless he is in the sexual dance.

So I shall persevere and try volume 4. It could go either way for me.