Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Mrs Harter by E M Delafield

This is an early EMD from 1924, and one in which she experiments, rather successfully, with her narrative technique.  Narrated in the first person by a man, Sir Miles Flower, the novel gives his account of the love affair between Diamond Harter and Bill Patch, which was the main interest of the village of Cross Loman for some months.  Mrs Harter is the daughter of the late local plumber, who married a colonial solicitor and stepped out of her class; but now she has returned from the East to stay, without her husband, in her original home, and disconcerted the carefully arranged hierarchies of the village.  The universally-liked Bill Patch is a writer, lodging with the young widow Nancy Fazackerly and her cantankerous father.  Diamond and Bill's love affair develops through various village social events - a concert in the Drill Hall, a picnic and some amateur theatricals - and Sir Miles recreates the story through his own memories and the accounts of other characters.  Occasionally, too, he allows himself to imagine the scenes between them that went unwitnessed.

Sir Miles is set up from the start as a potentially unreliable narrator. He is disabled following an accident in the First World War, consequently goes out little in the village, and admits that he hardly ever spoke to Mrs Harter; he is not present at many of the events he describes.  His will be an impressionistic portrait, relying on a retelling of reported conversations and, on two occasions, imaginary conversations constructed between Bill and Diamond.  Because the narrative is made up of hearsay from more and less reliable witnesses, the authenticity of its portrayal of Mrs Harter is always questionable.  This unreliable narrative ironically supports a reading of her character as one that is permanently elusive to her neighbours; in the opening chapter, several of the characters play a paper game in which they select adjectives to describe her, but they cannot agree on the words to choose.  There is also an element of voyeurism in Sir Miles’s scrutiny, and particularly in his imaginings of Bill and Diamond’s (extremely chastely described) courtship, which might be read as a critique of the prurient village gossip about the affair.

Using a male narrator seems to free Delafield to criticise more openly her anti-feminist female characters.  Sir Miles’s wife Claire, a satirical portrait of a self-centred and overly emotional woman, despises the opportunities available to her medical student niece Sallie; “Mumma” Kendall exercises a benign tyranny over her unmarried daughters and deplored the activities of the Suffragettes.  Both these characters are ridiculed in the text and used as the butt of jokes.  Sir Miles seems to look rather more favourably than his wife on Sallie, who is an insufferable know-it-all, but his conservatism expresses itself in his critique of her modernity.

The plot sets up many ironies, particularly through the choice of play for the amateur dramatics, which also draws out and makes explicit Mrs Harter’s exoticism and remoteness from the rest of the characters, and the conclusion of the novel provides a rationale for Sir Miles’s forensic approach to narrative construction.  There is also a good deal of high comedy, most of it provided by the oblivious Kendalls and the spirited Nancy Fazackerly.  Unfortunately, Mrs Harter the novel is as elusive as its protagonist, and currently out of print; there are second-hand copies about, however.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

In a narrative moving between the first-person testimony of the murderer, and a third-person narrative with an individual focus in each chapter, Susan Hill develops a range of characters, some of whom will meet their deaths at the killer’s hands.  The central character is Detective Inspector Freya Graffham, new to the small cathedral town of Lafferton.  Freya has recently ended a disastrous marriage but finds herself reborn in Lafferton, taking up singing again, succeeding in her new workplace and developing new friendships.  When two women disappear in quick succession on the Hill, a local beauty spot much used by dog walkers, joggers and the occasional pagans at the Neolithic Wern Stones, Freya leads the investigation.

This is more of a suspense novel than a whodunit; it is clear fairly early on who the murderer is, although there are plenty of feints and red herrings to distract the reader.  The tension is built as we follow the police investigation, and wondering how they, especially Freya, will resolve the mystery.  This is Susan Hill, so the ending is sad, bleak and unredemptive; but also the characterisation is strong and distinctive, the writing beautiful, and the narrative empathetic to all her characters.  It is particularly satisfying to see the unfortunate victims as characters in the round, rather than meeting them only as a body in the library; their engagement with life and their personalities emphasise the tragedy of their deaths. Hill is also skilful in showing how the murderer’s self-justifications unravel as the facts become exposed.

The first of the Simon Serailler series (he is Freya’s boss in this novel, and makes few, but significant, appearances), this novel makes good use of its fictional setting that is strongly evocative of little towns like Salisbury huddled around a cathedral, and of one of the themes of the novel, the relationship between medicine and complementary therapies – a generous term for some of the outright charlatanism practiced by some in the novel.  It’s always nice to start the series of a book knowing there are several volumes ahead of you to enjoy; now I just need to avoid gobbling them all up at once.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Bridge by Maggie Hemingway

This novel was thoughtfully provided amongst the books in a Suffolk holiday cottage because of its Walberswick location; I enjoy reading books in their geographical setting, so gave it a whirl.  The novel is a fictionalised account of the artist Philip Wilson Steer's time in Walberswick, the setting of many of his paintings (including The Bridge, shown above courtesy of a link to the Tate's collection) and a place where he spent many summers, until the early 1890s when his visits tailed off.  In Victoria's Golden Jubilee year, 1887, the fictional Steer comes to know Isobel, the mother of three young girls, spending her summer at the Suffolk resort while her husband continues to work in London.   Philip is passionately interested in painting, to the exclusion of everything else, until he encounters Isobel and feels himself in love before they have even spoken; Isobel arrives in Walberswick with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but consoling herself with that "comforting word", duty, when she considers the less attractive aspects of her marriage.  Their relationship, unwittingly brokered by Isobel's little daughter Emma, who craves attention, and fostered by her chaperone Aunt Jude, who likes to see her with friends, grows quickly, and a passionate attachment develops on both sides; however, the climax of their love will be dancing together at a Jubilee fete in Dunwich, once the capital of East Anglia but eroded by the sea over hundreds of years to a handful of cottages today.

The book is very good at evoking the scrutiny under which Isobel and Philip conduct their relationship. They are watched by Isobel's daughters, particularly Emma, who resents their closeness even though she cannot understand it; by Aunt Jude and their social circle in Walberswick; and by their servants and the townspeople.  Isobel comes to feel ever more trapped by all the eyes upon her; Philip feels obliged to offer excuses for leaving the town to his landlady, when he seeks to escape the tension of their unresolved love.  It also presents a strongly hierarchical Victorian society, in which the gentry take a prurient interest in the lives of the working class, by whose difference they define themselves.  After a violent storm, "Mrs Roust and Mrs Arthur moved among the fishermen's wives and, with the insinuation of assistance and sympathetic cluckings and shakings of the head, elicited every detail they could.  They turned through the rubble of these women's lives [...] hoarding their finds to pore over again and again in the warm comfort of their homes."  The child Emma sees the revellers at the fete as "a great crowd [...] red faces and wide open mouths, arms linked together like a string of fat sausages."  Hierarchies are maintained further down the social scale, with Emma routinely oppressed by her older sisters, and Steer's landlady, Mrs Pearce, dominating an ancient servant.

The narrative shifts, in third person, between the viewpoints of several characters, principally Philip, Isobel and Emma.  There was a little too much of Emma for me, but her recognition of her mother's affection for Steer is important for the plot.  I found Isobel's husband Reginald a slightly cardboard character, driven only by money and intensely materialistic.  He is clearly a foil for the passionate and aesthetic Steer, but to some extent they are two sides of the same coin, each relentlessly pursuing his particular vocation.

There is a film of The Bridge and the DVD was also in the cottage, but I failed to get around to watching it - next time.

The Bolter by Frances Osborne

I picked this up second-hand recently and, being a bit of a Mitford completist, thought I'd like to read the story of the model for the Bolter of The Pursuit of Love.  Idina Sackville's life story is certainly fascinating; married five times and separated from her two elder children by the terms of her first divorce, she sought greater freedom as a colonial farmer in Kenya, where she was a key member of the Happy Valley set and married, at least for a while, to Lord Errol.  The story of his sexual peccadilloes and consequent murder have been retold in the book and film White Mischief.  Elegant, alluring and sexually voracious, Idina also made a surprisingly effective farmer and created what sounds like a truly beautiful house and garden - Clouds, high up in the Kenyan mountains with colubus monkeys in the garden and a view across the Great Rift Valley.

Overall, though, I found Osborne's retelling of her life rather limited.  Osborne is Idina's great-granddaughter, and from the age of 13 had absorbed her family's mythology about Idina: that she was a scandalous woman and a wicked mother who abandoned her two little boys for entirely selfish reasons.  In telling the story of Idina's divorce from her first husband, Euan Wallace, Osborne is pretty fair-handed: both had been unfaithful and their marriage, like many others, was irreparably damaged by the First World War.  Both were in their early twenties and prone to seeing life in black and white terms; an older couple might have come to some accommodation, and Idina certainly negotiated open marriages with subsequent husbands that were, at least for a while, successful.  The insistence that Idina should not see her boys came from Euan and Idina accepted this as the best thing for her children.  Osborne has found out how many divorces there were in the immediate post-war years, but doesn't tell us whether this sort of custody arrangement was typical.  Under the prevailing divorce legislation, children were viewed as the property of their father, once over the age of seven, and custody arrangements routinely excluded the divorced mother; even if Idina had been able to take her young sons with her, they would most likely have been returned to their father's care once they were seven.  In its historical context, Idina's behaviour becomes less selfish, less "bad" and more usual.  Euan's decision to spend the year after his divorce working in America, leaving the boys in the care of their governess in Eastbourne, does not attract any authorial criticism.

Idina made contact with both her sons (who were, tragically, killed in World War 2 within a year of each other) as young adults, and appears to have had a reasonable relationship with her daughter Diana, the child of her marriage to Lord Errol; Osborne is careful to explain that it was normal to send children back to England for their schooling and considered unhealthy for them to grow up in the African climate.  Osborne, however, cannot leave Idina-the-bad-mother alone, and closes the book with the following:

 "Sitting here at my desk in my hillside farmhouse overlooking the vast stretch of the Cheshire Plain, I can hear my two small children scampering back indoors.  It is time I stopped writing and went to them."

The parallels with Clouds are obvious, but Idina's circumstances allow Osborne to assert herself as the better mother, achieving the hillside house with the glorious view and keeping her two children.  Possibly she is reassuring herself that she is not just as bad as Idina for spending years of their precious childhood shut away writing this book.  Osborne's monovalent reading of her subject, with no obvious awareness of how this reading has been informed by the biographer's own situation, wastes opportunities to explore other aspects of Idina's life (how did she learn to run a successful dairy farm, for example?) or indeed to celebrate Idina as a woman who found a way, in a deeply conservative section of a conservative society, to live life as she wanted.

To Osborne's credit, the paperback version includes a coda describing Idina's relationship with her stepchildren, the children of her fifth husband Lynx Soltau, who made their home with her at Clouds for eight years and with whom she kept in touch until her death in 1955. Idina's stepdaughter Ann McKay wrote to Frances Osborne after the first edition of the book was published, with warm memories of her time with Idina who, clearly, mothered her and her brother very effectively until well after her marriage to Lynx ended.  This testimony disrupts the reading of Idina as a bad mother that the main narrative articulates, although Osborne attempts to mitigate the bad Idina model by suggesting  that Idina's need for sexual love arises from her frustrated mothering instincts.  Heaven forfend that she should just have liked sex! and presumably it is possible to like sex and also be a good mother, as Idina was to her stepchildren.  It is interesting, however, that nobody had mentioned these children to Osborne during her research; clearly the stereotype of Idina was thoroughly embedded in many memories.

While I've got my hatchet out, I will mention that Osborne is occasionally repetitive.  Do you know that children in the colonies were made to wear a pad to protect their delicate spines from the fierce heat?  I do, because Frances Osborne told me so twice in this book.  She's also over-fond of the device of telling the reader, in the last sentence of a chapter, what is going to happen next: "Having herself bolted twice, Idina would now find out what it felt like to be bolted from" (175).  I'll leave the inelegant phrasing alone, but Joss Errol's bolt is more of a drift,  and anticlimactic.  Idina Sackville deserves not only a more rounded portrayal, but also one that is better written.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Optimist by E M Delafield

One of EMD's earlier novels, this richly amusing book focuses principally on the generation gap between those who grew up as Victorians, and the modern generation whose values have been shaped by the devastating experience of the first World War.  Appearing for the Victorians is the optimist of the title, Canon Fenwick Morchard.   An elderly clergyman with five grown-up children, he provided a home in the past to Owen Quentillian, whose parents were based in India before the war.  After the war,  Owen returns to stay with the Morchard family at St Gwenllian; he has acquired a house nearby which is being renovated.  Owen has made something of a name for himself as an essayist, and although his principles and ideas are completely opposed to the Canon's, he continues to respect him enough not to argue with him openly.  The Morchard family comprises Lucilla, the eldest, who has been housekeeper and a research assistant to her father since the early death of her mother; Valeria, who has been involved in a fitful romance with a Captain Cuscaden; fey and musical Flora, devoted to her father; and the annoying Adrian, whose war service was only of six months' duration, and is now looking vaguely for a career, having rejected the Church as an option.  David Morchard, the eldest son, has known Owen in the army and is now in India.

The Canon exercises a benign tyrrany over the four children who still live at home, constraining their behaviour with his excessive kindliness and his tendency to interpret any attempt at independence as a personal affront.  The Canon is ghastly, but very funny; his overt emotionalism in a crisis allows Delafield to set up some highly amusing encounters between the Canon and the modern world, as three of the four younger Morchards make tentative attempts to live their own lives.  He is also a frightful hypocrite, expecting far higher standards from other family members (and also Owen) than from Adrian, his youngest and favourite child. 

His tyrrany allows his children to develop some creative ways of expressing their individuality.  Lucilla, who failed to assert her wish to go to college as a younger woman, counsels Valeria against self-sacrifice as a way of life, and goes about her duty calmly, maintaining her love for her father while privately rejecting the majority of his values.  Lucilla's rational self-control and clearsightedness make her the antithesis of her father and explain his continued reliance on her.  Adrian adopts a more direct approach, getting a job on a magazine notorious for its anti-Christian standpoint.  The feeling that 'father would hate it' may check some behaviours but, when his children think it sufficiently important to do so, they defy the Canon openly.  The novel is ambiguous about Flora's eventual decision to enter a convent: the Canon celebrates it, but if it is mainly driven by a need to escape him, he is misguided.  Owen despises it as a rejection of life and a celebration of self-abnegation: but it is Flora's opportunity for self-fulfilment.

The novel can be read as a fairly mild polemic against Victorian parenting values and in favour of children making their own way in life - indeed, this is inevitable in the terms of the novel; the Canon fails to prevent any of his children, except perhaps Lucilla, leading their own lives.  It is also interesting for its depiction of the inevitable clash between the post-war generation and their parents' generation and the transformation of values that has been the effect of the Great War.  All the Canon's daughters feel the need for some sort of work to exploit their skills and energies; Valeria, who undertook war-work away from home, misses it greatly once the war is over, and the novel makes some feminist points about opportunities for women of this class.  The Canon is right up there with Delafield's other, usually female, parental monsters - this novel has much in common with Thank Heaven Fasting in that, and other respects - and the characterisation of the children is well-achieved.  I could have lived without some of the Bright Young Things, but I can see that their mildly scandalous activities were necessary to frighten the Canon into fresh excesses.

There are some facsimile reprints of this novel available as well as second-hand copies in fairly large supply, at least in the UK.  The Great War Fiction blog has also given The Optimist a favourable review - I agree that it deserves a proper reprint.

Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford

I've waited a long time to read this, and in fact had just realised that, in possession of a British Library reader's ticket, I now could get my hands on it - only to find that Penguin were republishing it.  Nancy Mitford didn't want it published in her lifetime, telling Evelyn Waugh in 1951 that "too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as funny or as anything but the worst of taste".  Charlotte Mosley's introduction reminds us of the family row which ensued on its first publication in 1934, with Unity Mitford and Diana Mosley both seriously offended by Nancy's mockery of their political commitments. 

The book casts a satirical eye over the trappings of fascism as practiced by the British Union of Fascists, including its casual violence, vague patriotism, appropriation of national artifacts and passion for uniforms.  Eugenia Malmains, "the largest heiress in England", is the chief proponent of the novel's "Union Jackshirt" movement; as a portrait of Unity Mitford she comes across as both quite mad and quite charming, which seems to be true to life as far as my reading about Unity goes; her charm allows Nancy to expose the ease by which people can be attracted to fascism and the superficial reasons they may have for joining the cause.  Perhaps the best joke in the book is Nancy's creation of Peersmont, a lunatic asylum specialising in the care of insane members of the House of Lords, which incorporates a replica of the Houses of Parliament and allows the Lords to go about their business with no hint that they are, in fact, incarcerated.  Lord Driburgh, an inmate, has an enthusiasm for fascism that satirises similar views expressed by real members of the interwar House of Lords, including, for a time, Nancy's own father.

The pace of the novel is hectic and culminates in a pageant which, unsurprisingly, descends into violence.  Woven around the satires are some rather cynical love stories in which dissipated young men search for heiresses to keep them; Nancy had just married Peter Rodd.  The character of Mrs Case, the local beauty, I found rather pointless; she seems to be there only to create some opposition to the Jackshirts, in the form of her group of aesthetic young hangers-on, not as tame or as feeble as they look.  Fascinating older beauties of this type were a regular feature in Nancy's early novels and presumably she couldn't quite let her go for this one. 

Country Dance by Margiad Evans

This little book, discovered while poking about in the sub-genre of diary fiction, is quirky and rather fascinating.  First published in 1932, and available again now through the Library of Wales, the book comprises Ann Goodman's diaries with a preface and coda provided by the author.  Ann Goodman is a shepherd's daughter writing in 1850, her father English, her mother Welsh.  At the opening of the book, she is leaving her relative Mary's farm in Wales, where she has been living and working for some years; she has an English sweetheart there, Gabriel, and it is at his suggestion that she begins to keep a diary.  Ann must return to her parents' home in England and care for her ailing mother.  While there, she will catch the attention of the local (and Welsh) landowner Evan ap Evans, her father's employer.  Ann tells us not only of the struggle between her Welsh and English suitors but of the struggle within herself to reconcile her dual nationality in the border country; her body and character are part of the contested space, her struggle to express herself and choose the right lover a series of border skirmishes.  Gabriel's rage, and her father's rejection of Wales and the Welsh, drive Ann towards her own Welshness and the acceptance of Evan ap Evans's attention, in a context of commonplace anger, violence and rejection.

The preface and coda are a framing device that present Ann's diary as a historic document and Ann as a real person, and politicise Ann's story as "the entire history of the border".  The novel presents its characters often in terms of racial stereotypes, or behaviour is explained away as due to Welshness or Englishness.  One minor character, Gwen Powys, proposes a toast to "The Border", after others have toasted Wales and England, suggesting that the Border may be a separate space where the rules of nationality do not apply.  Ann's embrace of her Welsh identity is, to some extent, celebrated by the narrative, but this is undercut by its tragic consequences.  

There are some points where the writing subverts the diary form.  Ann records conversations in Welsh in English, noting where characters have spoken in Welsh, and the diary gradually evolves a way of transcribing Welsh into an archaic English ("What hast thou done today?") to indicate when Welsh is being spoken.  But Ann understands Welsh and English and would have no need to translate it in her own diary, except in the early stages where she is writing it for Gabriel to read; the translation is for the benefit of the general reader who cannot be expected to understand Welsh beyond "Nos da".

Margiad Evans (a psuedonym for Peggy Whistler) wrote three other novels, and two volumes of poetry, as well as an autobiography and an account of her experience of epilepsy - she died from a brain tumour in 1958 at the early age of 49.  Last year there was a centenary conference about her at the University of Swansea; I hope this means she is more likely to be read, as her sparse and lyrical prose merits attention, and Country Dance has resonated with me for some time.