Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons

In this 1950 novel Stella Gibbons explores the little comedies and dramas of life in rural Sussex immediately after the second world war.  Alda Lucie-Brown comes to live at dreary, isolated Pine Cottage with her three daughters, Jenny, Louise and little Meg.  Alda's husband Ronald, a university lecturer, is still on military service abroad, helping with reconstruction work in Germany, and the family has lived a peripatetic life since their home in Ironborough, a prosperous provincial city where both Alda and Ronald have deep roots, was destroyed in the war.  Alda and the girls make friends with their immediate neighbours, the Hoadleys at the nearby farm, and Mr Waite, who keeps battery chickens and is fond of transcendent literature.

Alda is the matchmaker of the title, interfering first in the love life of her old friend Jean.  Jean has reached her early thirties without marrying, although there has been a procession of unsuitable men in her life; her father has recently died, leaving her his profitable kitchenware business.  Alda thinks that Mr Waite, for all that he is gloomy and old-fashioned, will do well for Jean, and develops their acquaintance.  Alda goes on to encourage Sylvia, a would-be actress with dyed hair working as a land girl for the Hoadleys, to consider Fabrio, an Italian prisoner of war also working on the farm, as a potential suitor.  All this is played out against a background of rural life, farm work, riding lessons and a convent school for the girls, with Ronald's occasional visits when on leave.

The underlying theme of the novel seems to be getting people into their rightful place.   Alda, displaced from her native Ironborough, takes a fairly superficial attitude to life at Pine Cottage; she will not be there for long and will not see at close hand the consequences of her matchmaking.  Fabrio is exiled from his impoverished Italian home and sufficiently disconcerted to consider Sylvia as a potential wife, rather than Maria, the girl at home who writes to him every week.  Mr Waite has been somehow deprived of the managerial business position that he grew up expecting to have; marriage to Jean would restore this to him.  The novel valorises people like the Hoadleys, who are in the appropriate setting and making it work for them; and Mr Hoadley's parents, who live, as Mrs Hoadley says, "very rough".  Sylvia and Fabrio's visit to the elder Hoadleys in their patchwork house brings out fastidious disdain in Sylvia, but the narrative is quite approving of their way of life.  Perhaps the strongest condemnation of the effect on place of the wrong sort of person is the description of the decline of the Linga-Longa cafe, once the clean and respectable Blue Plate, now infiltrated by gipsies, lorry-drivers and dirt, and unsuitable for Alda and her daughters.  The novel flirts with the possibility that people may move between cultures through the relationship between Sylvia and Fabrio, but ultimately takes a conservative view of such mobility: people, whatever their background, are better off where their roots are.

In order to fit in the right, appointed place, people must be of the right type; the novel therefore inevitably deals in stereotypes.  The Italian prisoners of war are portrayed as dirty, untrustworthy and over-emotional; Sylvia's semi-bohemian, theatrical and Communist family are described as dirty (again), vulgar and unintelligent; the London friends of Jean's original suitor are hard, fashionable and superficial.  There is a good deal about the grubbiness of Italian peasant life, and the novel sentimentalises their poverty as perfectly appropriate for peasants, indeed much the best thing for them.  This, alongside the general snobbishness which also permeates Nightingale Wood, can make the novel an uneasy read.  Alda, with her golden hair and sparkling hazel eyes, is probably intended to be as attractive a meddler in others' affairs as Flora Poste; although she is probably as interfering as Flora, she lacks Flora's ability to divine what people really want from life, and to give it to them while, serendipitously, getting her own way.
The novel's attractive qualities lie in its contingent, happenstance approach to plot; things happen that have no particular bearing on the twin love stories.  Jenny and Louise go to school for the first time, and find it difficult, but no crisis ensues; a storm threatens the harvest, but the neighbours and farmworkers all pull together to get the wheat in before the storm can break - which it never actually does.  Stella Gibbons seems fond of this type of anticlimax and uses it to tease the reader.  There are also lyrical descriptions of the charms of country life in the summer, with picnics and bicycle rides featuring prominently.  Criticising Sylvia's taste in films, the narrator praises films like This Happy Breed and I Know Where I'm Going! which "took a story from everyday life and touched it with poetry"; I suspect this was also the ambition of this novel.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947

Marie Belloc Lowndes was a novelist, playwright and (auto)biographer and the sister of Hilaire Belloc; both children spent their early years in France and Marie retained a slight French accent throughout her life.  Their mother, Bessie Parkes Belloc, was also a writer and friend of such literary figures as George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.   She married F S A Lowndes, a journalist on the staff of The Times, and was acquainted with a great many of the artistic, literary and political figures of her time.  This is evidenced by a photograph in the book of her autograph fan, signed by dozens of celebrated people including Oscar Wilde, Edmond de Goncourt, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.

This book, edited by her daughter Susan Lowndes Marques, comprises a selection of letters and autobiographical pieces.  The diary sections are often, in fact, extended reminiscences of experiences some time in the past, rather than a record of events as they occur, although these also form part of the text, as do letters to Marie Belloc Lowndes from her correspondents.  The autograph fan does not overstate her network of connections: she seems to have known, and usually lunched with, pretty much everybody of significance in early 20th century French and English history.  A prolonged reading of the book, I found, led to a great desire not to see any more names dropped.  But for any student of this period, her reflections and commentary on the politicians and writers of the time are illuminating; there is also a good deal about the characters of the 19th century that she had known personally or through her mother.

A devout Catholic, Marie had a rather sweet if naive tendency to believe that people were usually good at heart. The long section on the Abdication, in which she gives her view of Mrs Simpson as a virtuous woman in love with Mr Simpson, is idiosyncratic to say the least.  This hopeful approach to human nature does not, however, leave her as frequently disappointed with her fellow beings as you might expect, and her letters and diary writings are good-humoured and amusing; even the privations of the Second World War fail to daunt her spirit.  Marie Belloc Lowndes is probably best known now as the author of The Lodger, a crime novel which inspired the silent Hitchcock film of the same name.  Both are worth a look.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Camomile: An Invention by Catherine Carswell

I picked this up in an Oxfam bookshop in Suffolk because it was a Virago, and, as it turned out to be a diary novel, I bought it.  After studying the piano in Frankfurt, Ellen, a young woman of twenty, has returned to her family home in Edwardian Glasgow, where she is beginning a career as a music teacher.  She lives with her deeply religious Aunt Harry and her brother Ronald who is disabled in some unspecified way, although able to work as an architect,  and to envisage travel to America.  Her diary is actually a protracted letter to her friend Ruby who has also studied in Frankfurt and is now making a living as a teacher in London.  Ellen's mother, now dead, was also a writer of some sort, although the only reference to her output describes her work as 'pamphlets' and Ellen is very disparaging about her talents; her mother's writing is seen by the family as responsible for Ronald's disability, which came about because he was left in wet clothes by their mother while she was working.  Aunt Harry is very suspicious even of diary writing, and Ellen's desire for privacy in which to write and to practice the piano leads her to rent a secret room at a neighbour's house.

Ellen's diary is concerned with establishing her career, the emotional lives of her friends as they begin to marry, and her own desires for marriage and fears of becoming an old maid.  Her spinster exemplars are problematic: Aunt Harry's religious discipline and disapproval irritates Ellen, although she recognises that her aunt's love for her underpins this strictness; her former teacher, Miss Hepburn, moves from emotional eccentricity into madness, and is sent to the asylum.  Ellen eventually becomes engaged to the brother of a school friend. He is back, briefly, from India, but their courtship is not smooth; Ellen's desire is frustrated by the trappings and delays that an engagement at that time provides.  Alongside the narrative of her developing career and love affair runs the story of her friendship with an impoverished scholar: the man she calls Don John haunts the public library and helps inspire her to write more than the diary-letters she sends to Ruby.

Ellen is not really rebellious, but she still runs up against the constraints of acceptable behaviour all the time.  As well as chafing against the limitations placed on expression of her sexuality, she is forced to hide her writing from all but her confidants Ruby and Don John.  Social life in Glasgow can be limited, and offence easily caused; the influence of the church remains strong.  Ellen debates the rightness of her challenge to some of these conventions in her diary; should women write? should they marry? where should the boundaries of class be drawn? how awful would it be to be an old maid? Glasgow is always compared, usually unfavourably, to cosmopolitan Frankfurt, where the expression of sexuality and creativity was more possible, and conventions could be set aside in the pursuit of love and art.  Compared to her literary peers, however, Ellen has a degree of freedom; E M Delafield's young Edwardian women cannot travel about by themselves, make friends that their mothers do not know, or frequent the public library.  This freedom may derive from a difference in class, or the conventions of Scottish life at the time.

Ellen's voice is consistent and she is often humorous; her letters are written to entertain Ruby and to prolong the emotional intimacy of their friendship.  For most of the novel Catherine Carswell avoids the sort of explication which would disrupt the form by telling Ruby things she should already know; however, there are a couple of awkward places where Ellen announces she wishes to tell Ruby more about something previously mentioned in passing, so that back-story can be conveyed.  The ideals and conventions Ellen tests in life and in her diary seem to me to be authentic and very much of their time; this gives the text a slightly dated quality, like reading historical fiction.

Catherine Carswell wrote another novel, Open the Door! which seems worth seeking out, and a number of literary biographies, as well as working as a literary critic.  This role brought her a productive friendship with D H Lawrence, and his influence is detectable in Ellen's musings on female sexuality; Carswell was later to write his biography and completed most of her own autobiography, Lying Awake, published after her death in 1946.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Zella Sees Herself by E M Delafield

Delafield's first novel is a bildungsroman that articulates a young girl's response to a world which very rarely seems real to her.  We first meet Zella de Kervoyou at the age of seven, caught out by her cousins telling tall tales, and obtaining relief by confessing to her mother the lesser crime of taking a chocolate from the dining room.  The main action of the novel takes place after Zella's mother has died, when she is fourteen.  Zella's father Louis is half-French, of a Huguenot family but raised by his Catholic stepmother, the Baronne de Kervoyou, an aristocratic matriarch.  Zella's Aunt Marianne, her mother's sister who takes care of her briefly after her mother's death, is fervently anti-Catholic and combines ignorance and piety to an alarming degree.  To Aunt Marianne's horror, Zella is sent to a convent school, and eventually converts to Catholicism there, but her religious fervour dissipates once she leaves school and her aunt's thoughts turn to finding her a suitable husband.

Zella is an amiable enough character, and the novel seeks to criticise an upbringing which encourages her to adapt her responses to her surroundings, ignoring her own true feelings.  The adults around her, with the exception of her affectionate father, feed this adaptability by seeking to manipulate Zella to form their own model of a dutiful young girl.  Aunt Marianne's no-popery stance is carefully undermined by her ridiculousness and stupidity; even Zella at fourteen knows that Tennyson's poem is not called "In Memorial".  Because Zella is such a poseuse, her responses are an unrealiable guide to her real feelings, and it is sometimes hard to tell if the narrative supports her or not; for example, her desire to convert to Catholicism is strongly expressed, but her faith waivers quickly until a crisis draws her back towards it. Her conversion is strongly ironised by a scene in which she confesses her inability to recognise what is true and real to her cousin James while he wears the robes of a cardinal for a fancy-dress party; but the end of the novel suggests that Zella may come, in time, to understand what is real, and that her faith may help her sustain this.

There are some points of high comedy - the showdown over Zella's education between Aunt Marianne and the Baronne, for example, and the self-absorbed confession of Zella's suitor that he has Loved Another - and Zella's own, usually unspoken, criticisms of others are also consistently amusing.  Zella's tendency to cast herself as the heroine of a novel is exploited by several occasions when life fails to live up to the dramatic requirements of fiction.  Much emphasis is placed on Zella's French ancestry and the effect it has had on her character and morals, which reminded me of Claudine in the St Clare's books, who never would acquire the English sense of honour.  There is also an early satire of a modern young woman in the form of Alison St Craye, who has taken to smoking and Theosophy with great, if superficial, enthusiasm.  Some of the characters verge on caricature; there is much more subtlely in Delafield's later characterisation, which relies less on extreme contrast between characters such as that between Zella and her sensible cousin Muriel.

Delafield's later qualities and themes can be discerned, sometimes in embryo form, in this novel;  deployment of irony and anticlimax, the power and control exercised by older women over younger women, the proper education of girls, and the relationship between religious faith and secular life all figure here. You can buy Zella Sees Herself if you have £150 to spare; otherwise, like me, you'll have to make do with a library copy until somebody reprints it.