Friday, 28 October 2011

Anything Goes by Lucy Moore

My knowledge of 1920s America is based almost entirely on a youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dorothy Parker and repeated viewings of Some Like It Hot.  Lucy Moore's "biography" proved to be an entertaining way to expand my limited awareness beyond the Algonquin Round Table and fictional cross-dressing jazz musicians.  Moore's biography is chronological, but she does not attempt to squeeze in every aspect of such a potentially vast topic.  Instead, she focuses on characteristic events, trends and individuals, constructing a profile of the age rather than an exhaustive history.  Key themes include jazz, organised crime, modernisers and modernisms, the automotive and entertainment industries, and economics.  Each chapter has a thematic focus but constructs a narrative around that focus, telling the story and drawing out the broader historical implications.

Some of the people Moore writes about are hugely famous - Al Capone, Warren Harding, Bessie Smith, Lindbergh - but she is also good at working the stories of background characters into her text.  The chapter on the New Yorker focuses much less on its starry writers than on Robert Ross, the "homely" editor whose first wife said of him "he'd have to be good with that face and figure".  The chapter on Lindbergh, which includes a marvellous evocation of his solo flight across the Atlantic, tells us about the Californian plane builders who constructed Spirit of St Louis, working unpaid overtime to do so.  Moore is particularly good on showing how "business" and its methods acquired an almost religious significance, with the salesman the evangelising means by which consumption could be stimulated and profits increased.  Religion itself co-opted business language through the publication of The Man Nobody Knows, which apparently depicts Jesus as a successful chief executive who picked twelve go-ahead types to join his senior management team.  A recurring theme is the way in which notions of American-ness were promoted by the new mass media, particularly the cinema.

There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the impact of free-market economics and unregulated banking on the present economy, and the early roots of American thinking on this can be traced here.  Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary throughout the 1920s, was committed to the free market and to the reduction of taxation, particularly for the rich.  "By the time Mellon's new tax system came into effect in 1927 a few people were starting to worry about the effects of over-speculation and the over-extension of credit, but neither Mellon nor [President] Coolidge would countenance an interest-rate rise: they believed the market should be self-regulating.   This would have grave implications in the coming years" (160).  All depressingly familiar.

Despite the title, Moore also looks at some of the more reactionary elements of American society, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-Darwinist legislation passed by various states.  Even the conservatives in this book seem to have a definite sense of being modern - while reading, I began to wonder if a sense of our own modernity is something we have lost now that nostalgia is almost a way of life, at least in the UK.

This is not a footnote-laden text, although there are suggestions of further reading for each chapter and an extensive bibliography.  I slightly missed having footnotes - there is usually something juicy hidden there - but I think the book succeeds on its own terms as what Lucy Moore calls a "subjective survey" and as a stimulating introduction to a fascinating time.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

This novel is a witty, episodic comedy of manners with a wafer-thin plot concerning the courtship and early married life of beautiful Hyacinth Verney and handsome, if conflicted, Cecil Reeve, set in Edwardian London society.  Surrounding these two protagonist are a host of other characters, who both support and hinder their relationship.  Principal among these are the "little Ottleys", both well above the average height: Edith, who is a little bored with married life, and her envious, hypochondriac husband Bruce.  We also meet Sir Charles and Lady Cannon, Hyacinth's guardians; Cecil's music-loving uncle, Lord Selsey; Anne Yeo, a spinster of independent means who is Hyacinth's companion before her marriage; and Eugenia Raymond, a fortyish widow with whom Cecil is in love when the novel opens.  Ada Leverson cleverly keeps all these characters in play, extracting the maximum comedy from their interactions.

The novel is episodic, with short chapters which might be utterly disconnected from each other in temporal terms, picking up the narrative only when something interesting happens, and stopping abruptly when the interest has passed.  The final chapter, in particular, seems to stop rather than end, although there has been some rather unconvincing resolution of the plot by that point.  The obvious comic triumph of the book is the characterisation of Bruce, a pompous bore part-way between Charles Pooter and The Pursuit of Love's Tony Kroesig.  Bruce, who is spendthrift, self-aggrandising and lavish in his criticisms, spends "a great deal of his time and energy in disapproving generally of things and people that were no concern of his".  As his wife, Edith has to practice a great deal of forbearance:

"'You're always smiling, Edith,' he complained. 'Particularly when I have something to annoy me.'
'Am I? I believe I read in the "Answers to Correspondents" in Home Chirps that a wife should always have a bright smile if her husband seemed depressed.'
'Good heavens!  How awful!  Why, it would be like living with a Cheshire cat!'"

Mainly, however, Edith appears to survive by being amused at her husband's little ways, rather than pushing him down the stairs as one might expect.  Bruce is an amusing character, but I felt a little of him went a long way.  More to my taste was the sharply witty tone of the narrative: Lady Cannon's dresses are "so tightly-fitting as to give her an appearance of being rather upholstered than clothed"; weddings are an emotional strain because the "frame of mind supposed to be appropriate to an afternoon wedding can only be genuinely experienced by an Englishman at two o'clock in the morning".  Leverson is compared to Saki and Jane Austen on the cover of my copy, but she reads to me like a waspish blend of Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons at her funniest.

My main interest in the book was the depiction of Anne Yeo, one of the few characters in Edwardian fiction who can be read as lesbian.  Anne has money, but chooses to live with Hyacinth because she loves her, although her expression of this is understood by Hyacinth to be a joke.  Even in the context of this novel Anne is an odd character, eccentrically dressed and economical to the point of stinginess, given to sudden disappearances without explanation.  Despite her oddness, she has qualities that make her attractive to other characters in the book - and to the reader.  It's not really surprising that Ada Leverson, a close friend of Oscar Wilde, would have a positive view of variant sexuality, but it is notable that she has woven this view so deftly into a light novel, when it could be a cold spoon in the soufflé.

Love's Shadow was republished as part of the Bloomsbury Group selection of early twentieth century novels, and is widely available.  There are two sequels, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight, and the three novels were published in one volume by Virago under the title The Little Ottleys.  This seems to be out of print now and secondhand copies are currently incredibly expensive in the UK, although cheaper copies are to be had in the US.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Dark Island by V. Sackville-West

A curious and at times ridiculous work, this 1934 novel careers through suburban domesticity, London high society, overwhelming passion for a place, and a fatal love triangle, with a substantial portion of sadomasochism on the side.  The heroine Shirin, sixteen when the novel opens, is the youngest daughter of a middle-class suburban family residing in Dulwich.  Shirin nurses a secret passion for the island of Storn, off the coast of Port Breton (not clearly located in the text, but presumably in Cornwall)  where the family habitually take their holidays.  That summer, she meets by chance Venn le Breton, the heir of Storn and agrees to go with him to the island.  Venn is strongly attracted to her but also fearful of her and expresses in words and deeds his desire to hurt and control her.  When she leaves Storn at the end of the day, Shirin agrees to return - but the death of her grandmother cuts short her holiday, and it will be another ten years before she and Venn meet again.  In their twenties, Shirin now divorced and the mother of four children, they make a precipitous marriage.  Shirin does not love Venn, but she loves Storn, and when he realises this is the reason she has agreed to the marriage, he cruelly asserts his ownership of the island, killing the chance of any real intimacy between them.  The marriage endures, but Shirin needs help, and summons her friend Cristina, a sculptor, on the pretext of needing her for secretarial work.  Cristina loves Shirin, and this love is eventually returned, leading to a complicated triangular relationship in which both women attempt to balance the increasingly unstable and violent Venn.  As Venn's health deteriorates, the position of all three becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Added to this already complex plot are Mrs Jolly, a reformed prostitute turned housekeeper who has more than a maternal affection for Shirin; Lady le Breton, Venn's charismatic but malicious grandmother; Shirin's father, blinded by the Persian dust; and, always off the page but nonetheless a dramatic factor, Shirin's eldest son Luke who suffers from a congenital mental disorder and is confined to an institution.  Sackville-West has a rich melodrama with the basic plot, but cannot resist adding to it, stretching the reader's credulity long past breaking point.  She also breaks out into some astonishingly awful prose: "Now that he had let go of her wrist he felt that he had no more contact with her; she was separate; cut off.  They were both separate; cut off.  Their lives were separate and could never join,  So he was sad; not angry; just sad."  I feel sure I can hear Stella Gibbons laughing somewhere in the ether.  Other readers of my library copy have shared my irritation with the style: next to the paragraph in which Venn and Shirin consummate their marriage to the sounds of Wagner's Liebestod being played on an organ in the next room, someone has written WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH.

Among the better things about this novel are the evocation of Storn itself, remote and enigmatic, and the understated way in which the reserved and secretive Shirin is identified with the island.  There is also a rather interesting spiritual strand: to cope with the intense difficulties of her life, Shirin develops a faintly Buddhist approach of non-attachment and loving-kindness.  The depiction of the affection between the two women is frank, accepting and without prurience.  Other sexual behaviours - including sadomasochistic ones - are dealt with in a similar way.  But the increasingly purple episodes, particularly those relating to Venn's sadism, and the slightly clunky way in which each plot development is heralded by the same thing nearly happening, always portentously, a few chapters earlier, combine to make this a rather tiresome read.  The couple of contemporary reviews I've found seem to generally agree;  Vita Sackville-West's cousin Edward included The Dark Island in a list of recommended books for the library list in the Saturday Review, which was generous to her if not to the potential readershipThe book now seems to be only in print in French, although there are fairly inexpensive second-hand copies around.  If you would like to try VSW, I'd suggest starting with All Passion Spent or The Edwardians, or, best of all, her writings on gardening.