Saturday, 19 December 2009

Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson

Ordinary Families is a rather odd book. It is narrated by Lalage, usually known as Lallie, aged eleven at the start of the story, and part of the entirely unordinary Rush family, which comprises four children: Ronald, Drusilla, Lalage and finally beautiful Margaret, whose family position and physical attractiveness mean she is indulged with more of everything, but especially love and attention, than her siblings. Their father is a sailor, scratching a living out of trading in yachts, and with a back-story that packs in more adventures than might seem possible for someone of his years. Their mother has married out of her class; she is mainly, at least in Lalage's eyes, interested in ensuring that her children keep no secrets from her and are fed to bursting at all times. Their neighbours in the Suffolk seaside village are the Cottrells, a left-leaning intellectual family with a hint of Bloomsbury, and the Quests, rich and rather frightening to the young Lallie.

The story focuses, essentially, on Lallie's efforts to preserve the things that are important to her from her family's attention and teasing, which invariably spoils them for her, and it is usually Margaret who reads Lallie's mind and betrays her secrets. As a child, it is Lallie's love of birds that is revealed by Margaret, to Lallie's shame and dismay; as a young woman, she will compete with Margaret for the attention of Gordon, the man she loves, while struggling to prevent her family recognising her attachment and teasing her out of it.

The structure of the novel is episodic, often with large gaps of years between chapters - the First World War takes place in one of these - but Lallie's narrative voice is always adult and poetic. The narrative is strongly retrospective, evoking an adult's distant memory of childhood and adolescent experiences, and the first page makes it clear that the narrative may be unreliable, influenced by details added afterwards, distorted by re-tellings to third parties. This retrospective voice comes to a juddering end in the final paragraphs, in which Lallie, Gordon and Margaret are trapped in a moment in time, waiting for time to begin to move again.

Polly Devlin's introduction tells us that E. Arnot Robertson was no feminist, and Lallie's attitudes to the women around her bear this out: she despises her mother's domestic concerns, a neighbour who goes to Oxford is wasting her time, Stella Quest is disliked because she treats men as if they were big babies. At the same time, Lallie values the men in her life; her father is her early hero and she transfers this worship to Gordon, which makes her father seem a little ridiculous. She relies, for help, advice and generous hotel lunches, on the misogynous Mr Quest. The doubtful figures in Lallie's binary model of gender values are Gordon's former lover Esther, and Margaret herself, who have a power Lallie recognises as greater than her own.

The irony of Lallie, seeking something other than her mother's life for herself, but throwing away the opportunity of interesting work to pursue Gordon, who is likely to lead her straight back into the world of unfulfilled domesticity, is not explored by the novel. We could read from that an endorsement of the wifely role, were it not for the great sadness with which the last chapters are imbued; this is a very unhappy happy ending.

There is an interesting little mention of how the Rush family come by their reading material; most of it is chosen for them by the bus conductor's daughter, who lives next to the Ipswich Boots' library, and brought back by the bus conductor to isolated Pin Mill. Her taste is apparently "jollier" than that of the educated Cottrells. I can't think of any other novels of this period in which the reading of upper-middle-class characters is controlled by a member of the working classes in this way. Q D Leavis would have been horrified.

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