Friday, 29 July 2011

Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie's comic novel takes for its theme the complicated pairings, separations and new alliances among a group of more or less lesbian women on Capri (renamed Sirene in the book) at the end of the First World War.  His protagonist is the young and beautiful Rosalba Donsante, whose pleasure it is to absorb admiration, capture hearts, and break up established couples.  Rosalba is adored by the English Rory (short for Aurora) Freemantle, who is rich and decidedly masculine in appearance, with a "hispid chin"; Rosalba will take a good deal of advantage of Rory during her stays on Sirene.  Even the most snobbish and prudish people eventually succumb to her charms, but can Rosalba make a conquest of the celebrated composer Olimpia Leigh when she visits the island?

Published in 1928, a month after The Well of Loneliness, Mackenzie's book was spared the attentions of Sunday Express leader writers and the Home Office, despite its remarkably candid depictions of lesbian characters.  This is probably partly due to its original publication in a limited edition, and partly due to the tone of the book. The narrative voice is highly satirical, there is no suggestion that any of these women are martyred by society or their sexuality, and no serious claim for an equal place in the world for the invert; both Rory and Olimpia Leigh express the view that homosexuals have reached a higher plane of existence, but this is plainly presented as satire.  Most of Mackenzie's characters are ridiculous and he treats them with a highly ironic and slightly contemptuous manner; many of them are poseuses, asserting sexual deviance for attention only.  Several of them are also drawn from life; Olimpia Leigh is based on the painter Romaine Brooks, who was part of the Capri circle when Mackenzie lived there; Rory draws strongly on Radclyffe Hall, who was not a Capri resident but was clearly irresistible as a character, and a plainly lesbian one at that; and Rosalba is based on Mimi Franchetti, a rich Venetian who, according to Who's who in gay and lesbian history, was "stupendously egocentric, unable to keep from interfering in any relationship between two other women [...] an untameable femme fatale" (59).  

So the book is very interesting in terms of lesbian representation in fiction, and in historical terms, and it provides access to some excellent gossip.  But is it any good?  The narrative is highly ironic and mocking, and it can be very funny.  There are some lyrical descriptions of the beauties of Capri/Sirene.  But the story and structure are repetitive; Rosalba's sequential romantic conquests are followed by quarrels and usually a farcical climax of some sort, ending with the final chaotic party at Rory's clifftop villa.  There are also a number of plot strands that start up, but go nowhere, such as the burglary at Olimpia's house; these feel like padding in a fairly long book.  Some of the humour, for me, borders on misogyny.  On the whole I found this more interesting than enjoyable - and occasionally hard work, which for a book designed as a frivolous confection is disappointing.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Most people who have read any of Elizabeth Bowen's remarkable work will concur with Victoria Glendinning's assertion, in her Foreword, that Bowen is a "major writer; her name should appear in any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers in English on this side of the Atlantic in this century.  She is to be spoken of in the same breath as Virginia Woolf".  Glendinning sets out to trace the origins of this literary greatness and to explore the woman behind the text.  Bowen's childhood was intermittently idyllic, but blighted by her father's mental illness and the early death of her mother.  An only child but well-supplied with cousins, she grew up to be gregarious and sociable; a short spell at a very serious-sounding girls' school seems to have drawn out a sense of duty from Elizabeth's roots in Anglo-Irish gentry.   Elizabeth grew up to be hard-working, good fun, generous and - for the most part - well-behaved.  She was married for thirty years to Alan Cameron, a career administrator, who supported her writing and tolerated her various indiscretions.  It probably helped that Elizabeth was reserved; she could create intimacy very quickly with strangers, but generally without revealing much of her own interior life.  Her writing, which arose when she realised she had no talent for fine art, drew on her own life and relationships, but transformed them, taking possibilities further, exploring tracks passed by in the real world. 

 This was Glendinning's second book, and her first biography of a celebrated writer; published in 1977, only four years after Bowen died, it necessarily glides carefully over some of the details of her personal life, presumably to avoid offence to people still living.  I've heard Victoria Glendinning tell of how she tends to fall in love with her subjects, and Bowen certainly receives a great deal of generous sympathy and admiration.  Other biographers might perhaps have made more of her failings, but Glendinning is prepared to understand and accept them, particularly those failings that contributed to her work.  This generous understanding is also extensive in her later biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.  In this book, however, I got the feeling that, like her subject, Glendinning was holding back.  This might be due to her evident enthusiasm for Bowen's work, to the date of publication, or because the archival Elizabeth was as charming and delightful as her real-life counterpart.

Glendinning is very good on Elizabeth's relationship to Ireland, to her Anglo-Irish background, and also on her position and relation to English literary society.  There is a thorough consideration of all her major works, and of the themes that underpin them; given her other, ancillary work such as teaching and lecturing, Bowen's output was fairly prodigious, especially in view of the quality of her writing.  The chapter on literary wartime London is also fascinating, and I enjoyed the post-war chapters in which Bowen's literary position is secured, and she can encourage the young, travel, contribute to political work, and find time to persuade her American publisher to offer Muriel Spark's books in the US, which gives us all an additional reason to be grateful to her.  This book made me like and admire Elizabeth Bowen the person, an admiration to set alongside the one I already have for her writing.