Let us alone: Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers

Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers. Bloomsbury Circus, 2020

This was passed on to me by Mrs TD via her sister, who read it first.

I disliked it.

I thought a novel based on the sybaritic lives of artists, writers and poets – including a youthful Leonard Cohen – on the island of Hydra, off the mainland of Greece, in the early sixties, would be fascinating. It wasn’t.

What was wrong with it? Well, it’s overwritten. Although Samson portrays the exotic scenery and Aegean seascapes with some vivid descriptions, they become intrusive, and sometimes strive too hard for poetic effect.

It’s repetitive: the narrative consists largely of tedious, self-absorbed proto-hippies skinny-dipping, or lurching through drunken or drug-hazed parties, well, orgies. Fine if you’d been there, I suppose, but after the first couple of booze-ups I lost what little interest remained. Lotos-eaters are fascinating only to each other; here are Tennyson’s:

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined/On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. 

Dozens of interchangeable, shadowy characters appear whose identities we seem to be expected to remember from earlier in the book, but who lack any kind of distinguishing or interesting characteristics. Are these the sex-mad Scandinavian painters, or the sex-mad American drifters? Ultimately it makes little difference. None of them has any substance or depth – nothing like gods, but certainly careless.

The locals fare no better: grizzled, unreconstructed Hydriot fishermen and downtrodden, unliberated women are caricatures seen in a hundred second-rate films. Indeed, Sophia Loren’s role in ‘The Boy with the Dolphin’, filmed partly in Hydra, is name-checked several times. I’ve not seen it, but from what I read about it online it sounds no more authentic than Polly Samson’s Hydriot ciphers.

The expat characters are almost all unpleasant, narcissistic egotists who spend most of their time (when not getting drunk or high in those parties) bitching or gossiping maliciously and hypocritically about the others in their circle. As they’re all sleeping with each other’s partners, there’s plenty to be vicious about.

Leonard Cohen is a shadowy figure who’s given some toe-curlingly awful pronouncements that are supposed I presume to sound gnomic and profound, but simply come across as pompous or affected.

There’s his famous affair with Marianne, the married, ethereal Norwegian beauty whose husband Axel runs off with the latest in his string of girlfriends. This cad is so despicable it’s a mystery why anyone would ever pass the time of day with him. Oh, and he takes off just after his wife has given birth to their child. Cohen turns out as faithless as the odious Axel.

The central character, Erica, is a naïve eighteen-year old, escaping an abusive father after the death of her mother. Samson contrives a half-hearted mystery about the relationship of her much-loved mother with their ex-neighbour Charmian Clift, the Australian author who now lives as a sort of expat queen bee in Hydra with her ghastly alcoholic husband, also a writer. This storyline limps along for over 300 pages and is hastily resolved in a sort of post-it note final section told from the perspective of Erica decades later. This Australian couple come nearest to fully-fleshed, authentic characters – but they’re increasingly horrible to each other and most of their hedonistic circle of hangers-on. Even Charmian’s occasional softening towards Erica is overshadowed by her drunken rejections of the young woman’s desperate overtures to her to be a mother substitute.

Erica’s brother Bobby is vile to her, while her feckless boyfriend disappears abruptly from the narrative, with barely a gesture at explanation, as Bobby does later. Neither of them is missed by the reader. Erica is too inexperienced in love to know better than to break her heart over their joint betrayal and desertion of her. Not to worry, she’s soon hopping into bed with a few more young men whose identities didn’t register with me enough to recall anything about them, except that I think one was a local potter.

DonkeyI don’t enjoy being negative about the books I post about here, so here’s a nice picture of a doleful donkey I spotted through a hedge on my walk in the country the other day.

 

 

DH Lawrence in Zennor – again. Guest post by Helen Boyles

Helen recently commented on my posts (from four years ago) about DH Lawrence’s stay in Cornwall during WWI. She gave permission for me to post her poem on the topic. First a short introduction by her about the provenance of the poem:

Introduction

I was inspired to write this poem after a visit to the little ancient Cornish settlement of Zennor which we reached after a long day’s walking along the mist-swathed Cornish Coast path. I had been keen to spend a night here after learning of D.H. Lawrence’s association with the place. I’d studied and long been interested in the writer and his keen emotional response to place in general and this in particular. When in Zennor, we also learnt more about Lawrence from the current publican of the Tinner’s Arms, where Lawrence had stayed for a while when he first came to the place to consider establishing a small writing community of friends there. That it didn’t work out was probably inevitable in a traditional working community during this sensitive period of the first World War with Lawrence’s strong anti-war sentiments and rather flamboyant German wife. I thought it would be fun to try and convey Lawrence’s initial idealism and eventual disappointment in his imagined thoughts and words.

Here’s the poem (WordPress insists on line spaces between lines – hope this doesn’t detract from the effect too much):

Lawrence in Zennor

Yes, this should suit us well, far from the fret and heave of human life,

a space of peace.

Such a fine, wild landscape – the finest I have seen in all my travellings.

A kind of paradise – I could be happy here.

The mind can breathe – we can settle to our work,

with like minds forge a new way.

Six rough stone-walled fields from my window

is the sea, I feel I hear its breathing out there

through the day, its hush and rush. It takes us out, away.

I feel the words and lines come crowding in, worlds

building from the passions of our lives and loves.

 

Yes, so I thought, thought I could escape smallness here

with these grand shapes, the jutting profile

of the Head, the stony tumble of the fields.

And surely there was space

for all of us, Katherine, Murray, Frieda, me,

to be – and grow, but no; the littleness, the fear

came creeping in to shrink and darken us.

Banal complaints: the place too large, too small,

the damp, the inconvenience,

the awkward shape and pace of things,

the surly silence of the working neighbourhood.

How they diminish us, betray our better selves.

 

And what we do to each other – the stupidity of that –

the grief. How we feed the innocent the lies of honour, duty,

serve them the myth of nationhood. What does that mean?

I see the stoic faces quietly accept this myth

of honour, duty, nationhood, turn from the land

to follow that hollow call.

I want to shout at them: Don’t listen to those lies!

But they regard me warily.

Old Celtic stock, the folk are quiet and plain with us,

are rooted in their own truth, in myth memory

that tunnels underneath the bright turf

where they delve within the roar of waves.

Some may be lost in that roar, the blindness it brings.

Well, they may see a light and read it as the enemy

or a signal to such, I’m told.

 

And Frieda moves to the sea’s pulse; sometimes calm and lazy,

sometimes dancing, sometimes turbulent.

We move to each others’ moods, the flux and turn

of moon drawn tides.

I have loved her boldness, reckless energy,

but here it spills to carelessness –Volklieder

in the lanes does not sit well with this community, not now,

she should see that. So now we’re trapped in gossip,

warped in the mirror of suspicious minds.

 

A brave community this could have been,

and this place carved from granite and the light,

it could have been a paradise.

In its sounding of the ancient ways it brought new possibility:

it brought a hope and we have wasted it.

I thank Helen for this fine response to DHL and his experience of West Penwith. There follow some links to my original posts here about his initial euphoria on moving to Zennor, and the ensuing disillusionment and exile. Helen captures very well in her poem this movement in DHL’s spirit from elation and hope to despondency:

  1. The Promised Land
  2. I feel fundamentally happy and free
  3. The magic fades
  4. Now I am glad and free
  5. ‘The sensuous Celtic type: DHL’s short story ‘Samson & Delilah’
  6. (Two years ago I posted THIS PIECE on the sale of the idyllic cottage in which he and Frieda had lived, and where he’d hoped to establish the utopian community ‘Rananim’ with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; they disappointed him by moving to Mylor, near Falmouth, in what he called the ‘softer’ part of the county, to escape the cottage they considered too basic and uncomfortable.)

 

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek

 

 

Parties and peacocks

Elizabeth Day, The Party. Fourth Estate, London, 2018. First published 2017

Is it possible to enjoy a reasonably well put together novel about a group of singularly unpleasant characters? It should be, but there’s usually some decent soul to strike a balance, provide a moral counterpoint to reduce the nasty taste of the cads and villains.

Elizabeth Day, The Party: front coverElizabeth Day’s The Party has as its focal point a fortieth birthday celebration for one of the most egregiously selfish, cruelly patronising of the upper-class types who populate the narrative. Ben is well connected, handsome, privileged and arrogant, and our protagonist, Martin, from a much lower social class, admires him to the point of adulation. He’s clearly in love with him, and Ben knows and exploits it.

As in Nothing But Blue Sky, which I posted about recently HERE, Martin’s been emotionally distorted by his difficult childhood. As a consequence he’s become even more lacking in affect than MacMahon’s character, David. In fact he’s a borderline psychopath, given to crushing the skulls of small creatures.

If the reader feels inclined to feel some pity for him, this is thwarted by his equally heartless treatment of his doting wife, Lucy. She idolises Martin for all the wrong reasons, mistaking his diffidence for respectful gallantry, having lost her confidence in relationships after a trauma in her earlier life.

The Party also refers to the Conservatives, the political party in which perfidious Ben is destined to play a parliamentary role – he’s a good friend of the unctuous PM, the guest of honour at his birthday bash. The novel has been likened to Highsmith and Donna Tartt, but I find it more like Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty – but without its panache and rounded characters.

The prose is functional to the point of blandness. The shifting chronology, with alternating sections narrated by Martin and Lucy, creates a certain amount of tension and suspense, but the big secrets and reveals are set up so obviously that the suspense soon dissipates, and I very nearly gave up halfway through.

PeacockI was much more interested in some recent rural walks. Peacocks have featured in several posts this summer; recently Mrs TD and I were delighted to see this chap grazing right in front of us on the grass verge of the country lane we were walking along. To my surprise he let me get right up to him: he looked at me with a mixture of interest and disdain. Call that plumage? he seemed to be thinking as he surveyed me.

Creek view Yesterday to the creek that has also featured here before. For once the tide was in, covering the mud, and it looked splendid in the sunshine that had finally struggled through the cloud after a week of autumnal squalls.

The martins and swallows have left for warmer climates. Schools and colleges are about to re-open, followed by universities. Let’s hope all goes well.Creek and boat

Potato field and creek

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.

 

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary. Truran, Mount Hawke, Cornwall, paperback, 2002. First published 1935

The friends with the beautiful Siamese cats, who’ve featured in a couple of recent posts, are active participants in the life of the city’s cathedral, and the charity that runs Epiphany House, which featured in one of my ‘local walks during lockdown’ posts (link HERE). In discussing some related topics, the life of Fr Bernard Walke came up. I hadn’t heard of him, so a copy of his book about his time as vicar of St Hilary, near Penzance, was duly reserved at the local library, now open for a click and collect service.

I’m not a religious person (my friends clearly are), but Fr Walke’s genial and charming humanity shine through every page of his memoir. His Anglo-Catholic faith is apparent, and he has that rare ability to make it seem natural and attractive.

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary coverHe’d been a curate at two other Cornish churches before St Hilary: first at St Ives, where he initiated his popular practice of taking mass outdoors onto the harbourside, and endeared himself to the ordinary townsfolk by joining the fishermen when they put to sea; then at Polruan, opposite Fowey, where he enjoyed occasionally accompanying the freighters carrying china clay to Europe and beyond.

Each chapter is packed with incident and experience. In the opening chapter he relates a typically endearing anecdote of the stray cat that adopted him and would trot after him to church when he celebrated mass. One day she was taken with the sparkling sequins decorating the mantle of a grande dame of the village in the front pew. She sprang from her usual spot on the pulpit lectern into the old lady’s lap. Next day Walke received an irate letter from his Vicar, enumerating his many ‘extravagances’ (code for ‘high church practices’) concluding with the cat’s ‘monstrous behaviour’ the previous night. One phrase stood out for him:

‘Your performing cat has made religion stink in the nostrils of the best people in Polruan.’

In his defensive reply Fr Walke adduced the example of St Philip Neri, whose cat always accompanied him ‘at his devotions’, but to no avail; the poor little cat was barred from the church.

Fr Walke arrived at St Hilary in 1913. His first impression of the village, just outside Penzance in rural west Cornwall, was not favourable. The church had been unsympathetically rebuilt in Victorian times, the landscape was rather bleak, and the village was blighted by what he thought rather ugly villas.

In his twenty years as vicar there, however, he became much loved by his parishioners and locals. There was hostility throughout that time from some to his catholic rites and adornments to the church, culminating in a violent incursion by Protestant activists near the end of his time there – an attack that almost broke his spirit and his already faltering health.

He began the memoir while being treated for TB in a sanatorium at Tehidy, then later in Gran Canaria when his health again deteriorated.

The memoir is dominated by his deep reverence for and love of nature: birds, trees, plants and animals are frequently befriended or described. He was particularly fond of donkeys, and would ride around the county in a ‘shay’, tolerating the wayward animals’ tendency to wander off the road. One had a habit when off duty of taking to the fields and causing mayhem, such as leading local horses into bad habits.

Fr Walke’s wife Annie was a noted member of the Newlyn community of artists. Many of this famous group populate the pages, and several of them contributed artworks to decorate the church: Harold and Laura Knight, Dod and Ernest Procter. Roger Fry did a reredos. Other well-known figures appear briefly, from AJ Munnings to GB Shaw.

This amiable country vicar’s warm heartedness wasn’t confined to love of nature: he was a great campaigner on behalf of the ordinary working people of his community. In St Hilary this was largely the pre-mechanised agricultural workers. Like all the greatest Christians, he practised what he preached, and strove to bring light and purpose into the lives of St Hilary’s people.

He is perhaps best known for the Christmas plays that he wrote and had performed in the church by the parishioners. A BBC friend persuaded him to have some of these broadcast on radio – the first ever outside broadcasts in the mid-1920s, continuing into the thirties.

He set up a local children’s home, and opened his own house up to a small group of Austrian refugees after WWI. The chapters set during that terrible war are particularly poignant. Fr Walke was a committed pacifist, and the already simmering hostility to his catholic tendencies was heated even further by his anti-war stance. There’s no mention of DH and Frieda Lawrence’s similar activity in nearby Zennor at this time (see my posts on DHL in Cornwall HERE).

His campaigning was also extended to an attempt to establish a new mining enterprise in the area; most of the mines had by this time closed, and many former miners who hadn’t joined the Cornish diaspora were unemployed.

I approached this memoir with some trepidation, since I don’t share the author’s faith. But I enjoyed it immensely; the author has a delightfully self-deprecating style, and his love of humanity is uplifting.

 

 

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours (Viking, 2020)

I recently watched the 2019 Patrick Vollrath film 7500, set almost entirely in the cockpit of a passenger plane attacked by terrorists. It’s a daring premise, and just about works as a nail-biting thriller. Rosamund Lupton’s new novel Three Hours is similarly constrained in terms of setting; hers is more expansive, but still has claustrophobic units within it – classrooms and a school theatre set within a huge woodland campus of a progressive school in rural Somerset. Her plot also deals with an imperilled group of adults in a position of care and responsibility for a vulnerable group, in this case the large body of pupils in the school, with ages ranging from five to eighteen, under attack from armed terrorists.

I heard about it on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read, and bought it for Mrs TD. She loved it, and recommended it to me.

Lupton Three Hours cover Penguin

Our copy of Three Hours has been passed on to another family member before I could photograph it, so this image is from the Penguin website

The central plot is taut and well handled: during the three hours of the attack, will the police forensic psychologist and her team of officers and counter-terrorism experts figure out who the masked gunmen are, and hence what their motives might be, so that a strategy for negotiation or extraction can be devised? There are several heart-stopping twists along the way, that make it impossible to say more without spoilers.

Mixed in are several entwined narratives involving individual groups of pupils and staff, each endangered and vulnerable in their own ways. Gradually a smaller group of key individuals emerges into focus, each one with their own neatly-drawn backstory, all of which contribute to the driving central narrative. It’s a nail-biting ride.

Most engaging and moving is the developing story of two young Syrian refugees, brothers Rafi and Basi, aged sixteen and six respectively. In flashbacks we learn the terrible experiences and ordeals they endured as they made their escape from their war-ravaged homeland. Rafi as a consequence suffers from PTSD, making his response to this new life-threatening menace even more raw and heartbreaking. Rafi’s selfless love for and commitment to protecting his traumatised little brother are movingly portrayed.

The overwhelming message that the novel leaves is that love is more powerful than hate, and the bonds that tie us – family, lovers, schoolmates, work colleagues – are the most important thing in human experience. Not the most original theme, perhaps, but it’s not too cheesily realised.

I could have done with a bit less of the rather laboured parallels with Macbeth.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rosamund Lupton has been a scriptwriter – it’s easy to imagine this novel becoming a successful film or tv series.

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Abacus, 2018. First published 2004

Mrs TD and I discovered a new walk yesterday. It starts at Feock church, on a headland divided by branches of the River Fal by Carrick Roads. I’ve written before about this village, the sturdy little church, its obscure patron saint, and its fine lych-gate and venerable yew trees.

Jane Gardam Old Filth coverMrs TD passed on to me a book she’d just read, and what a good recommendation it was. Jane Gardam was born in a district of Redcar, N. Yorkshire – where I attended grammar school. Old Filth deals with the long life of a retired advocate and judge, Sir Edward Feathers, said to have invented the uncomplimentary acronym of the novel’s title: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. After an undistinguished career as a jobbing lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he’s given the opportunity to ‘try Hong Kong’ and the ‘Far Eastern Bar’, where he flourishes.

The novel deals mainly, however, with the ways Feathers’ childhood and youth scarred him emotionally and made him into the cipher he appeared as an adult to his contemporaries. The novel is bookended by dismissive, pejorative comments about his outwardly uneventful, unexciting and unimaginative life by some of his surviving legal community:

Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit…He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after his retirement.

Gardam’s narrative demonstrates brilliantly and movingly how little we can know about a person’s depths – the truth of them – from the exterior they construct and present to the world.

His widower father showed him no affection, and had him shipped at the age of four back to England – like so many other ‘Raj orphans’. His foster mother in Wales treated him and the other children in her care with cruelty bordering on sadism. Other events in his early life show his capacity for hiding his emotional scars while searching desperately for the love and affection so long denied to him by those who should have cared for him.

The narrative is complex in structure, with frequent flashbacks to different stages of his development, each one subtly indicating what shaped him into the outwardly competent but aloof figure he became. We gain a gradually focusing picture of his loving but not entirely satisfactory relationship with his wife, Betty. At the novel’s start Eddie is in his eighties and Betty has recently died. As the narrative proceeds we hear about the secrets that haunt him, the relationships, heartbreaks and experiences that moulded him.

It’s a deeply felt portrayal of a conflicted, damaged life, and an indictment of the heartlessness of the powerful elite British who ran ‘the colonies’ of their former empire, ensuring they exploited every natural resource, while tainting the lives of all who came into contact with them.

Back to our walk yesterday. We followed a path down to the foreshore of a creek at Penpol and Point. A group of ten swans cruised majestically up the ebbing tide, then spoiled the elegant look by breaking up into aggressively lunging squabbles.

Penpol creekWe followed another, unknown path back across fields high above the creek. The views were lovely – on a rare day this summer in Cornwall of clear blue sky and sunshine we could see Carn Brea monument high above Camborne, some fifteen miles away.

Back at Feock we walked a little way across a field to gaze at Carrick Roads below. There were handsome but very large cows gazing at us inquisitively; Mrs TD isn’t keen on cows, so I went ahead alone to take the picture below. Earlier the footpath passed beside a field with glamorous-eyelashed alpacas, and again Mrs TD insisted on hurrying past, avoiding eye contact with them as they sauntered over to look at us. They looked affronted but amused.

Carrick cows

 

 

O, lucky Finn. Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, the Irish member. Oxford World’s Classics (1991?) First published as a magazine serial, 1867-68; first book edition, illustrated by Millais (not his best work), 1869

It took me a month to read this huge novel, and another to summon the energy to post about it. Energy was something Anthony Trollope must have had enormous quantities of – he published his first novel in 1847 at the age of 32, and many more followed, sometimes several per year (there were two more, for example, in 1869, when Phineas Finn came out in book form).

The phenomenal rate at which Trollope produced prose fiction came at the cost at times of subtlety and originality. There’s the usual large cast of characters in this novel, but quite a few of them could have been dispensed with at little damage to the fabric or structure of the whole – especially the lower-class characters, who lack the sense of familiarity and sympathy of another prolific Victorian, Dickens.

The cover is from ‘In the Conservatory’ by James Tissot

What I found the most interesting and topical aspect of PF was the portrayal of political life, and in particular of parliamentary life in reform-era England and Ireland. In his Autobiography (1883) Trollope expressed regret at having made his protagonist Irish; this probably reflects the way in which Irish-British politics had become more divisive and volatile in the years that had elapsed after 1869. It’s important for the novel that Phineas is the son of an Irish country doctor, and that his political career suffers its first major crisis as a consequence of his discovery of strong radical convictions about tenant rights and land tenure in his homeland – treated then as a primitive, submissive colony of Britain, another outpost of the exploited Empire.

Politics, then. As early as vol.1, p. 26 (this OWC edition preserves the two-volume structure of the original), Phineas’s cynical politician friend, Fitzgibbon, tells his callow fellow countryman (Phineas is only 25 at the start of the novel), about to set out on his political career, some home truths about the parliamentary system. As Liberals, the two are discussing the faults and merits of their Tory opponents, who at that time held a majority in the Commons. Phineas had objected that under a Tory government, the country got nothing done:

‘As to that, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other [retorts Fitzgibbon]. I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power, – for patronage and pay.’

Much of the political element of the novel (the other element is a tangled web of love and marriage plots, including a duel between two male rivals for a pretty woman – plus a bit of the usual tedious Trollope obsession, fox-hunting) depicts the gradual coming of age of Phineas in this callous, factional world of party politics. He comes to realise that party has to come before principles if he’s to rise to a senior post that paid a salary (MPs at that time were unpaid, hence they had to be rich landowning gentry, or have wealthy sponsors) – a struggle that ultimately forces him to make a self-destructive choice.

That cynical view of British (and American) politics still applies today. During the present crisis it’s apparent that many in government are more interested in keeping in office and eyeing their standing in the polls than in ‘doing something’ for the country.

Phineas is a lucky rather than talented young man. He has little apart from his good looks and pleasant manner to recommend him. He’s fortunate to fall into a ‘pocket borough’ constituency where its aristocratic patron can guarantee his election: ‘The use of a little borough of his own…is a convenience to a great peer’, our narrator says of this as yet unreformed trait of the electoral system in mid-Victorian times.

This luck stays with him for most of the novel – until those pesky convictions enter his head: ‘Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence?’ is the problem he confronts. “But what is a man to do?” he asks an MP colleague late in the novel: “He can’t smother his convictions.” The reply he’s given is witheringly dismissive of such convictions in a young MP – this is the worst of all possible defects, he’s advised.

He’s less lucky in his love life. He falls in love with several women in the course of the narrative, is rejected twice, more successful twice – but again he has to balance expediency or ‘business’ (meaning money to support his career) against romance. One of the women who turns him down does so for similar reasons: she marries a dull but wealthy man to extricate her profligate brother from debt. As a consequence she denies herself a potentially happy love match with Phineas.

It has to be said that his broken heart heals remarkably quickly, and he’s soon in pursuit of another quarry.

The final part of the novel ties up the numerous loose ends in what looks like a hasty and poorly conceived way, and I tended to agree with one of the women who turned down Phineas’s proposal of marriage: his character lacks depth.

The women characters are more interesting (as they were in Can You Forgive Her?). They face the usual dilemma of spirited, intelligent women of the time: their role in society was largelyrestricted to that of domestic goddess and mother. Although Trollope stops short of promoting a ‘new woman’ or suffragist heroine, he shows a great deal of sympathy for the submissive, unfulfilling life that was such women’s destiny. Characters like Phineas’s first love, Lady Laura, yearn to be able to be ‘useful’ and ‘politically powerful’ – but their capacity to be so is denied them.

Despite the rather silly duel and some flimsy characterisation and clunky plotting, this novel is worth reading for the insight into nascent and much needed political reform.

 

 

 

 

Broken love: Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. PMC 1981. First published 1953.

In two 1930s novels, Rosamond Lehmann depicted the rivalry between two sisters as they searched for love. Kate settled for suburban domesticity and complacent motherhood, losing her glamorous looks and zest for life in the process. Olivia was more restless and unconventional, and chose an affair with a selfish man with no intention of leaving his wife.

I posted a few years ago on Invitation to the Waltz HERE, and The Weather in the Streets HERE and HERE

Twenty years later, after some stormy relationships of her own, elements of which seem to have inspired The Echoing Grove, Lehmann deals with similar themes and dynamics.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

The cover image is from the painting ‘The Tea Table’, by Edward Le Bas (1904-66)

Rickie Masters (apt name), descendant of ‘landed gentry’, is married to Madeleine: sensible, beautiful, maternal and a little dull. He has a passionate affair with her bohemian, unconventional sister, Dinah. Later they all have affairs with other people. WWII intervenes, killing off some of them and their loved ones; others die of natural causes, probably resulting from the stresses of their complicated love lives.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The novel consists almost entirely of these three characters, and later one or two more with whom they become romantically or erotically involved, engaging in interminable, convoluted conversations. About themselves, mostly.

It doesn’t sound very inviting, does it. But somehow it kept me engaged – though I flagged during one mammoth talking session set in the London Blitz, where Rickie manages to ramble on about his guilt and obsessions (mostly himself) for what seems like a hundred pages and years of war. It’s one night! The unfortunate woman who listens with admirable patience and forbearance just wants to have sex with this man with whom, for some unaccountable reason, she’s fallen in love. She’d seemed so sensible and clear-eyed.

The narrative is largely in an even edgier, more fragmentary free indirect style than the one Lehmann used to such good effect in those two earlier novels. There’s a complex chronology, with jumps forward and back in time, that often left me confused, and having to turn back to find the thread.

There are some acerbic (and ironic) statements about gender relations that are familiar from those earlier Lehmann novels. This example is from an early internal monologue of Madeleine’s; she’s thinking about Rickie’s poorly disguised guilt about getting entangled with her alluring sister again:

Poor Rickie. Must be kind, patient, wifely… Why could men never put a good face on? If they were tired they yawned in your face, if they were depressed they glowered: women were expected to lump it.

Pretty perceptive and hard-hitting, considering how pliant she’s being about her husband’s infidelity. Maybe she thinks he’s just a naughty boy, and will come back, tail between his legs, just a bit sulky (which he does, occasionally). He also shows some of the homoerotic impulses seen in The Weather in the Streets.

Later, when Madeleine has confronted her unfaithful husband about his affair with Dinah, she contemplates going to have it out with her sister. Rickie can’t handle all this female emotion, and doesn’t care for the role he’s being allotted. He says he’ll go to bed:

He dragged his heavy limbs upstairs, telling himself that women were formidable, really relentless; not a nerve in their bodies.

Not sensitive like him, that is. He dreams of resilience and elasticity. I’m not sure whose.

Why that title, The Echoing Grove? The phrase doesn’t appear in the text. The nearest to it is a quotation from a poem by Blake, aptly called ‘Broken Love’:

Root up the infernal grove

The sympathetic woman who’s listening to Rickie’s endless monologue supplies this supplement to two earlier lines from the poem that he’d remembered Dinah reading aloud to him:

And throughout all Eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

There are opportunities for forgiveness in the novel, some of them successfully negotiated. Rooting up this ‘infernal grove’ is a way for the man in the poem to ask his partner to ‘give up love’, as Rickie’s bed partner of the time puts it. Renunciation and selflessness aren’t what these characters have in abundance. They’d benefit from what medieval Provençal troubadours called ‘mezura’ (middle English ‘mesure’), meaning something like self-control, avoidance of excessive emotion or behaviour. Like a medicine taken to ward off a fever. But then there’d be no novels like this one, just poems about courtly love.