Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Tortoiseshell Cat by Naomi Royde-Smith

This is the first novel of the prolific Naomi Royde-Smith, who published a large number of novels, plays, non-fiction and anthologies, as well as working as a reviewer,  but now appears to be pretty much forgotten; she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.  Royde-Smith was part of interwar London literary society, intimately involved with Walter de la Mare and Rose Macaulay, making the obligatory appearance in Virginia Woolf's diary (Woolf didn't like her).  In her fifties she seems to have made a lavender marriage with a rather younger actor, which was by all accounts a success.  All in all, she sounds like a quirky character, and this certainly comes across in The Tortoiseshell Cat.

The novel concerns Gillian Armstrong, a young woman trying to make a career out of no particular skills or aptitudes, living with her sister Lilac at the Mordaunt Club, a Chelsea residence for unmarried or widowed women.  Gillian has travelled a great deal with her late father, but is thoroughly innocent; watching Lilac work to fascinate her young man, she is both faintly shocked and uncomprehending.  Her first job, at the rather shambolic Pelham House school for girls, comes to an abrupt but anticipated end when the headmistress finds she has been quoting Theopile Gautier to the girls; her next job, as private secretary to nouveau riche, eccentric Lady Bottomley, is more successful.  A Pelham House pupil, Jane Bird, has a crush on Gillian; after Jane has left school, she seeks Gillian's friendship and introduces her to Larry Browne, an artist and his flatmate, Heinrich.  The eponymous cat helps Gillian meet a fellow Mordaunt Club resident, Victoria Vanderleyden, and V.V. in turn to meet Peter and Heinrich.  After Lilac makes a successful marriage to Lady Bottomley's son Toby, a complicated web of relationships will be woven between Gillian, V.V., Jane, Larry and Heinrich that Gillian will find increasingly difficult to understand and to unravel.

Gillian feels strongly, and has a powerful sense of her need to make her own life, but has little comprehension of the origin or meaning of her feelings, or of the effect their expression will have on others.  She is powerfully drawn to V.V., but luxuriates in feelings of affection and V.V.'s tender attentions without examining them.  She is fascinated by the fey Heinrich, who tames sparrows and mice, but is unable to understand the seriousness that lies beneath his faun-like persona.  Only when tragedy marks her life will she begin to understand the implications of her actions and the decisions she has made.

Royde-Smith's novel is written for the most part in a sharply entertaining style which reminded me of Ronald Firbank; the humour is often constructed by Gillian's surreal environment and the odd, oblique ways in which the characters express themselves.  There are some very funny individual characters, particularly the incomprehensible headmistress of Pelham House, who cannot construct a full sentence, and the epitome of bad taste, Lady Bottomley, whose Knightsbridge house is full of the ugliest objects and who has filleted the saucy bits out of her son's copy of Swinburne with a sharp pair of scissors.  The twist into tragedy is a little awkward in this context.  The book's depiction of lesbian and gay characters is fairly explicit, especially to the modern reader - V.V.'s endless series of friends with men's names is a rare pre-Well of Loneliness reference to lesbian subculture - but like other novels of the period, the conclusion is essentially conservative.  However, it's still an enjoyable novel that would appeal to admirers of early Evelyn Waugh (another Firbank fan) and Stella Gibbons's satires of bohemian life.  There is a print-on-demand edition of this novel currently available but Royde-Smith seems ripe for wider rediscovery, and an obvious choice for a Persephone edition.

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