Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

Emma Smith, author of The Far Cry and Maiden's Trip, has written a memoir of the first twelve years of her life, which were spent in Newquay in Cornwall in the 1920s and 1930s.  Emma Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith, a terrible name for a small child with a lisp.  Her parents were middle-class but impoverished; her father's grandfather lost the family wealth in a speculation just before the Great War which put paid to her father's hopes of becoming a famous artist, and he now works as a cashier in the bank.  Her mother had been engaged three times before her marriage, and in each case her fiancĂ© had died before they could marry; the Hallsmith marriage seems to have been agreed rather precipitously and was as successful as you might imagine as a result.  

Guthrie Hallsmith has a craving for fame and social success that is not matched by his talents as an artist or more generally as a human being; his wife, friendly and pretty, achieves social standing more easily than he does, but reaps only his resentment.  Elspeth's older siblings, the twins Pam and Jim, draw their father's fire away from their little sister.  Pam is straightforwardly rebellious, while poor Jim, with his flat feet and double hernia, comes nowhere near his father's ideal of boyhood and suffers angry beatings as a result.  Elspeth is considered to have more of an affinity with her father, but she perceptively realises that this has no foundation, and torments herself with her hypocrisy in performing a relationship which has no basis in love.  Elspeth - and the adult Emma - remain perplexed by the paradox of Hallsmith life: "we are presented to local society as a remarkable family, quite out of the ordinary, and a cut above all other Newquay families, yet when at home, inside, and the door firmly shut on the world, then the theatrical glue that sticks us together dissolves.  Behind the scenes [...] we children are shown that each of us, as an individual, is in no way remarkable, but wretchedly inadequate, with nothing of which to be proud; the reverse, in face: much of which to be ashamed."  Elspeth's ambition is merely to survive the difficulties of family life, evading her father's anger and disappointment as much as she can.

While this aspect of the book is profoundly sad, Emma Smith draws out the joys of her childhood as well.  There is the dependable Lucy, their maid, who cooks and cares for the children, who knows where to find anything that is lost.  There is their beautiful and sociable mother, who charms their neighbours.  And there are lots of friends, to be met on the beach, at dancing classes, at the tennis club.  The memoir is well-titled, for the beach is the centre of society for the children; picnics, games, parties all take place there, they learn to swim and to surf, they know the business of the beach - deck chair hire, bathing huts, ice-cream from the kiosk.  A stormy winter sea is an entertainment for the family.  The book is also very good - and very funny - about the infinitely subtle gradations of class in interwar provincial society; Elspeth frequently offends through her inability to keep to these rules, making friends with a Barnardo's boy she meets on the beach, and unable to limit her conversation to topics suitable for nice little girls.  As she grows older, her views of these distinctions become decidedly critical, but remain unspoken in order to keep the family peace.  An afterword reflects on how these structures and limitations constrained her parents, with a sympathy not much evident in the text.

This is as well-written as The Far Cry, and as in the novel, the sense of place is very clearly evoked: little Elspeth is astonishingly attuned to the texture of the Cornish coast, the caves and inlets that only low tide reveals, the rockpools and the dunes, the strange quirks of the local landscape.  While the sadness of this story could make it drift towards misery lit, underlying the narrative is the growth of Elspeth's strength and independence of mind,  which makes the story a positive one,  however grim Guthrie's moods might become.  Smith is also very clever in combining Elspeth's child's view of the world with an elegaic tone for the loss of that world, and in maintaining a balance of adult and child in the narrative voice.  Finishing the book, I longed to know what happened next, and Smith gives a few things away in this interview with The Guardian.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

William by E.H. Young

This 1925 novel deals, leisurely, with the effects of a family crisis.  The Nesbitts are a prosperous Bristol family (Bristol is called Radstowe in the novel) whose wealth is due to William Nesbitt's successful career as a ship-owner.  William has built up his business from nothing, having started life as a sailor, and he and his wife Kate live in a gracious white house that he determined to buy in the early days of their marriage.  Their youngest child Janet, the only one of five not yet married, lives with them, and three of her siblings live nearby.  Only the dramatic and wayward Lydia has left to live in a damp house in London with her husband Oliver, where she entertains artists, writers and musicians.  Lydia will precipitate the drama of the novel when she leaves Oliver to live in another damp house in Somerset with the writer Henry Wyatt.  The varied reactions of her friends and siblings, the family tensions arising from these reactions, and the resolution of these tensions are the matter of the narrative.

William Nesbitt is the protagonist, and much of the action of the novel is seen through his eyes; he is a fond and affectionate father, strongly interested in his children's lives, but also benefits from the slight detachment afforded by his professional life at the office and his status in the town, which is built on commercial rather than moral foundations.  No such luxury is available to Kate, and her response to Lydia's defection is what we would currently call judgemental; she rejects her.  William has much more sympathy with Lydia, and this difference opens up a rift between them.  Two of their other daughters - pampered Dora and martyred Mabel - take similarly opposing views.  Janet, whose feelings for her sister are complex and somewhat obscure, remains enigmatic.  The narrative is not a straightforward account of a family at war, however; the Nesbitts' mutual love underpins all their disagreements, and Young quietly shows how they work their way through this crisis.

There is a lot of texture in Young's prose. Light is particularly important: the light sparkling from the river when the family takes the maiden voyage in a new steamer, the darkness of Lydia's adulterous Somerset home, the pure, clear light that floods the Nesbitts' white house.  Colour, too, is significant. William ascribes colours to his children (Lydia is scarlet and purple, unsurprisingly) and the narrative is punctuated by little points of colour: William's buttonhole, flowers in vases, greengrocers' shops, the hills behind the town.  The narrative is paced like William's daily walk to and from his office, comfortably slowly, stopping regularly to examine something more closely, to look back at the view behind.  Sometimes this pace drags a little, and there were points where my fingers itched for a blue pencil.  At its best, however, it allows the family drama to unfold naturally, without haste or contrivance.

John Bayley's introduction to the Virago edition uses the word "subtlety" about this book, and it seems to be to be a just one.  The characterisation is subtle (with the possible exception of Mabel, whose function seems to be mainly comic); motivations are complex and not straightforward; relationships are built and maintained with negotiation and compromise.  What is not said remains as important as what is said. 

Unfortunately all the Virago editions of E H Young's novels seem to be out of print, although Amazon has plenty of secondhand copies for a penny.