Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly comic novel Sweet William is the story of the sentimental education of a young woman named Ann who lives in London and works for the BBC.  The novel opens with Ann saying goodbye to her stuffy fiancé, Gerald. He’s leaving for a university position in America, and although Ann and Gerald lived together in London, he’s decided that it would not be appropriate to have Ann join him. He’s promised to ‘send for’ her though, and he’s fobbing her off with excuses while she resents him for his lack of commitment. Entwined with Ann’s resentment is the uncertainty of the engagement to a man she doesn’t know well. Ann is feeling a bit lost when she meets William McClusky, a blonde, curly-haired playwright, a chronic philanderer, who invades and then takes over her life, persuading her to give up her job and enter into some slippery domestic arrangement with him:

In ten days she had encouraged adultery, committed a breach of promise, given up her job, abetted an abortion. She had not been aware, throughout these happenings, of any unease of distress. She had become like one of those insect specimens under glass, sucked dry of her old internal organs, pumped full and firm with an unknown preservative. She was transfixed by William. 

William, at least initially, appears to be an attentive, caring man, railing at Ann’s lack of ring on her finger, asking if her fiancé is unemployed (and thus can’t afford a ring) while he states, the very first day he meets Ann:

‘If you were my woman,’ he said, ‘You’d have a ring for your finger.’

Amidst a few gentle protests that she’s an engaged woman, Ann passively accepts William’s ardent, urgent attentions. William stakes out his claim in Ann’s life like an explorer marking his territory with the arrival of a television set so she can watch him on a talk show.

sweet-william

This book could so easily have been a tragedy but in Bainbridge’s hands a terrible comedy ensues as William’s many lives, countless lies and his innumerable women gradually, and messily tumble out of the closet. He’s married (still) and there’s a violent divorce somewhere in his past, but his present is also peppered with women, a fluctuating sea of women, some of whom are known to Ann, and some of whom are his most ardent supporters and defenders. Ann’s life disintegrates into chaos as William comes and goes, leaves her pregnant, he pops back, floats away, and makes promises which he rarely keeps.

“I’ve never,” he said, ‘felt like this about anyone. You’ll just have to believe me. I do have compartments  to my life, I can’t deny that, but I’ve never loved anyone like this before.’ He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.

Later Ann asks herself, “what kind of compartments did he mean–air-tight ones or the sort on railway trains? Was she locked away on her own, or was he in the compartment with her?” Many of the things William says with such intensity sound good at the time, especially to the innocent Ann, and it can be argued that William, a rather nebulous figure, could mean what he says at the time he says it, or he could just be a heartless, serial adulterer. He says he visits the children from his ex-wife to read them bedtime stories every night, but when he’s caught in a lie, the story shifts to his obligations to his current wife:

‘she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’

He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words.

He claims to have plenty of money, and his current, much older wife confirms that, yet many of the presents William brings or sends to Ann have questionable origins. He’s a playwright, and that’s confirmed, and yet his plays appear to be almost parodies of working class woes. Is he talented or not? Does William take advantage of women or does he simply fill each need as he comes across sadness and loneliness? Is William just a conman wrapped up in tinsel prose and cheap tenderness? Are the many women he meets and beds his victims or his muses?

But I can’t finish the review without mention of one of the book’s most marvelous characters-another fuzzy around the edges person–Mrs Walton, Ann’s mother. She interferes, criticises, and behaves inappropriately at all the wrong moments in Ann’s life. At one point she hears William moaning outside trying to get into Ann’s flat:

‘What’s wrong with the fool’ hissed Mrs Walton. ‘Does he think he’s Heathcliff?’ She had never known anything like it. Not even during the war when things were more casual.

Ann makes a visit to Brighton to visit her parents and somehow their warped domesticity connects to Ann’s acceptance of William’s behaviour and his dreadful lies. Even William seems to attain some new dizzying heights of deception with his incredible story of how one trip to the dentist ended with the dentist assaulting him and throwing away William’s clothes.

Beryl Bainbridge based the character of William on Alan Sharp; they had a child together.

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

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Two or Three Graces: Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novella After the Fireworks concerns the love affair between a popular author and a young attractive female fan. Two or Three Graces, the second novella in this collection published by Harper Perennial also concerns love affairs–collectively these two novellas explore the nature and reality of love

The tale is told by Wilkes, a bachelor, and begins in Paris. I wasn’t sure where Huxley was leading as he describes two of Wilkes’s problematic relationships. One trying friendship is with the volatile, highly emotional writer Kingham and the second with former public schoolmate the plodding, boring Herbert Comfrey. Kingham, a man who “liked scenes” has an overreactive fit about Herbert and exits the frame, or so we think.

after-the-fireworks

Wilkes returns to England in the company of “passive vegetable clinger” Herbert and lo and behold who do they meet on the Dover quayside but Herbert’s even more boring brother-in-law, solicitor, John Peddley. This man is so boring that he actually haunts railway stations and docks waiting to pounce on a “victim,” some weary traveller who he can then pontificate to at length, while this poor lost soul, too tired to fight, puts up little resistance. Peddley, like a typical bore, just needs an audience; to other people’s “feelings and thoughts he was utterly insensitive. It was this insensitiveness, coupled with his passionate sociability, that gave him his power. He could hunt down his victims and torture them without remorse.”

Peddley was an active bore, the most active, I think, that I ever met; and indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer. He talked incessantly, and his knowledge of uninteresting subjects was really enormous. All that I know of the Swiss banking system, of artificial manures, of the law relating to insurance companies, of pig-breeding, of the ex-sultan of Turkey, of sugar rationing during the war, and a hundred other similar subject , is due to Peddley. He was appalling, really appalling; there is no other word. I know no human being with whom I would less willingly pass an hour.

And yet the man was extremely amiable and full of good qualities. he had a kind heart. He was energetic and efficient. He was even intelligent.

And it’s in a state of weariness that Wilkes succumbs to an invitation to Peddley’s home. Here he meets Peddley’s wife, Herbert’s sister, Grace. She’s a lot like Herbert, but whereas Herbert annoys Wilkes, he’s charmed by Grace. She’s a sort of helpless, vague woman, and Wilkes finds her “graceful ineptitude” quite “enchanting.” After spending some time with the Peddleys, Wilkes concludes that the marriage ‘works’ but that Grace tunes out of her life most of the time.

It’s through Wilkes that Grace is introduced to two successive lovers. Each love affair defines Grace in some way–hence the title. With one lover she becomes a bohemian, and with another, she’s a heartless vampire who sucks the life out of men. At one point, Wilkes even begins to imagine that he’s in love with Grace.

With each of these men, Grace, however, doesn’t fundamentally change. She might dress differently, and she might carry around a cigarette, but she’s still vague, fuzzy at the edges, Grace. The men in her life make her what they want her to be–hence the title. Huxley shows us two different Graces through her love affairs, but he’s not sure if there even is a third Grace. There’s a lot of sympathy for this character who married Peddley when she was too young to know better.

In spite of this novella’s slow start, I loved it. It’s a character study, and Huxley analyses his handful of subjects quite unmercifully, giving them nowhere to hide. But then even Wilkes, our narrator, is sliced up and his faux feelings examined. Also under scrutiny here is the subject of love. Huxley acknowledges its realities but also subtly analyzes its shifting properties.  There’s a definite feeling that Huxley is writing about real people disguised by fiction.

Uncle Spencer is the third, and weakest novella in the book. It’s basically the reminiscences of holidays spent with an idiosyncratic uncle who runs a sugar factory in Belgium. These holidays are interrupted by WWI, and Uncle Spencer’s arrest and imprisonment.

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The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

“I dare say,” I’d continue, “that you think you’ve known what it is to be cold.”

While I’ve throughly enjoyed many Beryl Bainbridge novels, I’ve avoided this author’s historical fiction. For this reader, historical fiction is anything pre-1914, and in common with others, I’ve been disappointed in the way authors can’t seem to leave modern sensibilities behind when they step into the past. This brings me to The Birthday Boys, a fiction novel based on the catastrophic 1910 expedition to Antarctica.

The novel is broken up into five distinct sections, spanning from 1910-1912 in five voices: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these are the five men who trekked to the South Pole only to find that they’d been beaten to their gaol, and that on their return journey all five men died. I still remember the history lesson.

The novel begins before the ship, Terra Nova, leaves for the long voyage, and it’s the voice of Petty Officer Edgar Evans we hear first. Optimism reigns with parties, free drinks and farewell celebrations– although there are a few signs of foreboding which, of course, all come to pass.

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Wikipedia has an informative page on the Terra Nova Expedition along with the information that Scott was long hailed, unequivocably as a hero, until … well … he wasn’t, and now many of the decisions he made are called into question. It’s these fatal decisions that Bainbridge tackles as she burrows into this story of exploration. Were these men incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy? All of the elements that are now acknowledged as fatal mistakes appear in the story–“a catalogue of disasters and miscalculations,” the failure of the motorized sleds, Scott’s aversion to using sled dogs, the poor quality of the ponies that Scott insisted on using, the fact that five men trekked to the South Pole on rations for four,  “inexpertise on skis,” and Scott’s stubbornness and inflexibility.

Although five different voices contributed to this tale, there are just a few salient issues that seep through the narrative: loyalty to Scott (with the exception of Oates), the way these men saw nature to be conquered and what drives men to attempt such goals, in such conditions–especially if you’ve been on other expeditions and have a jolly good idea of the sort of thing you’ll face. Wilson, for example, joined the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, and shelved his memories for this trip. Evans “lost most of the nerves” in his lower jaw (along with his teeth) in an earlier Antarctica trip.

This is not easy reading, and I doubt I could stomach reading a non fiction book on the subject. Bainbridge’s recreation of the expedition through fiction takes us right there in the frozen Antarctica with these men, and at times, this is a dire, grueling read. The deaths of the ponies is horrendous. We become observers–sometimes of wanton slaughter as these men move south: Wilson painting a Portuguese man-of-war, noting that it was “astonishing beautiful” in the water but “once removed from the sea they go out like a candle, the colour snuffed away,”  and Oates who “slaughtered” a “man-of-war bird” with a seventeen foot wing span. We get a sense of what drove these men–all larger than life characters who didn’t fit in well into mainstream society, “misfits, victims of a changing world.”

What sort of man was Scott–a leader of men, and so loved that his followers said they would die for him…. and they did…

In his ruthlessness of purpose he resembled Napoleon, who, when the Alps stood in the way of his armies, cried out, “There shall be no Alps.” For Scott there was no such word as impossible, or if there was it was listed in a dictionary for fools. In the dreadful circumstances in which we found ourselves, half-starved and almost always frozen, our muscles trembling from the strain of dragging those infernal sledges, I expect his was the only way. To have faltered at this late stage would have been like pulling in one’s horse while it was leaping. He spared no one, not even himself, and he drove us on by the sheer force of his will.

I usually avoid fiction books based on real events as I am left wondering what exactly was true and what was fiction. Then I wished I’d read a non fiction book on the subject instead. In the case of The Birthday Boys, due to its dire and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I do not want to read the source material. Bainbridge, who must have poured over the journals, letters and facts of the disaster took me along on the trip through her perceptive eyes, and what a fantastically horrible journey to hell it was.

I can’t help remembering the Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon with its pictures depicting the Buddhist hell. One could only thank God they were fanciful, as most of them went beyond description for fiendish ingenuity, the worst torments s being reserved for the killers of animals.

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The Bottle Factory Outing: Beryl Bainbridge

“She’d always wanted to go to Spain–she was very interested in flamenco dancing.”

In Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly funny novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, two roommates in a London boarding house, complete opposites in character and temperament, both work in an Italian-run, wine-bottling factory. Both young women have problems with men. Theatrical Freda, “she walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or as a lady agitator,” a large, domineering blonde, has a crush on trainee manager, Vittorio while Brenda, who’s fled a husband and a fearsome mother-in-law, spends most of her working day fending off the advances of her married boss, Rossi. Unfortunately Brenda, who never wants to make waves, and never wants to offend anyone, sends Rossi mixed signals. She tries to avoid his frantic requests that she join  him in the cellar for a quick grope while he plies her with wine, but she’s so passive, she goes along hoping, futilely, that she can thwart his more aggressive moves.

She couldn’t think how to discourage him–she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly “Please don’t, Rossi,” but he tickled her and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

“You are a nice clean girl.”

“Oh, thank you.”

He was interfering with her clothes, pushing his hands beneath her tweed coat and plucking away at her jumpers and vest, shredding little pieces of newspaper with his nails. She tried to have a chat with him to calm him down.

Freda took Brenda under her wing after meeting her in a butcher’s shop but what attracted Freda to Brenda in the first place,”Brenda’s lack of control, her passion,” has grown stale. Now Freda is mostly annoyed by Brenda:

“You’re a born victim, that’s what you are. You ask for trouble. One day you’ll go too far.”

She lay down again and rubbed her toes together to warm them. “It’s probably all that crouching you did under dining-room tables during the war.”

The novels centres on, as the title suggests, a work outing arranged by Freda who is trying various tactics to ramp up her relationship with Vittorio, and she decides “she would have a better chance of seducing him if she could get him out into the open air.” The outing is supposed to include a visit to a stately home and a relaxed picnic. Of course, on the day of the outing everything goes horribly wrong, and while, by the time the outing takes place, numerous things have already gone badly in the lives of Freda and Brenda, author Beryl Bainbridge exceeds reader expectations as the plot takes an extremely dark, twisted turn.

bottle-factory

 

When you read a book for the second, or as in this case, the third time, new things seep out of the pages. For this reading, I was struck by how Freda and Brenda drove people to extreme behaviour. There’s Brenda’s “obviously deranged” mother-in-law trying to kill her, and what exactly did happened in Brenda’s marriage? It must have taken a great deal of bad behaviour for passive Brenda to take action. Then there’s Irishman, Patrick, who’s attracted to Brenda and who offers to come and fix her toilet. He’s another man who misreads Brenda’s rather limp signals. He’s also the odd man out at work:

Rossi treated him with suspicion, seeing he was Irish, following him about the factory in case he slipped a bomb beneath the cardboard boxes and blew them all to pieces.

And then there’s Freda, militant, aggressive Freda, who pulls out all the stops to lure Vittorio to her room in a shabby boarding house. Freda also drives men crazy, and there’s something nastily funny about how these two women handle the men in their lives. Freda pursues Vittorio avidly, and Brenda, tries, rather meekly, to fight men off. It takes the factory outing to bring these situations to a head with some very unpleasant results.

There’s a wonderful sense of comic timing to the novel–the attempted seductions and the thwarted seductions, along with the comic comings and goings that reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy, but also there’s wonderful timing in the silent, ignored horror of lives glimpsed off in the sidelines:

Brenda withdrew into a corner of the room, seating herself at the table beside the window. Across the road on the balcony of the third floor an elderly woman in a blue dressing gown and hat with a rose pinned to the brim waved and gesticulated for help. Brenda knew her gas fire had blown up or she was out of paraffin or the cat had gone missing. It was unfortunate that Freda had rented a room opposite a building devoted to the old and infirm-there always someone in need of assistance.

Here is Max’s review

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After the Fireworks: Three Novellas by Aldous Huxley

“Ostrichism–it’s the only rational philosophy of conduct.”

In Aldous Huxley’s novella, After the Fireworks, fifty-year-old bachelor, author Miles Fanning is in Rome for his annual stay in Rome with his “oldest friend,” Colin Judd, a man Fanning confesses that he doesn’t like, but still a man who is an asset. It’s through Fanning’s relationship with Judd that we first get a glimpse at this famous author’s character, and it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. Fanning uses Judd for his house in Rome, and because of the free accommodations, he’s willing to let the possessive Judd fuss over him.

after-the-fireworks

Most of Judd’s competition is in the form of Fanning’s female fans, and Fanning, knowing this, has the habit of teasing Judd, provoking his friend’s jealousy.

He was having his revenge. Nothing upset poor Colin Judd so much as having to listen to talk about women or love. He had a horror of  anything connected with the act, the mere thought, of sex.

Fanning has received a letter from a twenty-one-year-old fan, Pamela Tarn, who just happens to arrive in Rome. Fanning, who sometimes has affairs with his women fans, knows that Pamela is too young for him, and he knows that he shouldn’t take advantage of her youth or the fact that she worships him. Fanning is happy to flirt with Pamela as she’s an attractive girl with “impertinent little breasts,” and after all, it’s very flattering to have a young, beautiful girl hanging on his every word:

There was even something quite agreeable in resisting temptation; it had the charms of a strenuous and difficult sport. Like mountain climbing.

He mentions Pamela to an old, female friend, Dodo, a woman he contemplated having an affair with years earlier. She knew Pamela’s mother Clare, and according to Dodo, Clare, a mediocre woman, was a fantasist when it came to her GPs (grand passions) and so-called Caprices. It seems likely that Pamela, “vamping by correspondence,” may be a lot like her mother–a born groupie.

What she’s seen of the world she’s seen in her mother’s company. The worst guide imaginable, to judge from the child’s account. (Dead now, incidentally.) The sort of woman who could never live on top gear, so to speak-only at one or two imaginative removes from the facts. So that, in her company, what was nominally real life became actually just literature. Bad, inadequate Balzac in flesh and blood instead of genuine, good Balzac out of a set of nice green volumes

 

After the Fireworks is an interesting tale for its exploration of an author’s relationship with a particularly persistent fan. Fanning enjoys the attention from attractive female fans, and yet also cringes at the thought that anyone ‘understands’ him. He’s well aware that women read his books, identify with the heroines, and imagine that their lives are part of some sort of epic romance (sometimes with him in the picture). It’s a phenomenon known as “Miles Fanningism”

The plot contains some chapters with Pamela writing, rather immature observations about Fanning, in her diary, while inadvertently revealing her youth, inexperience, and unrealistic worship. After the Fireworks has a literal and figurative meaning with Fanning arguing, logically, in one particularly strong passage, why they shouldn’t engage in a love affair, but the problem is that Pamela won’t take no for an answer…

This could have been written as a tragedy (Anna Karenina is mentioned) but instead this is an excellent novella about human folly. Just because we know we shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean that we will behave sensibly. The story had a Jamesion feel to it, and no doubt the location accentuated the connection.

This is one of three novellas published in a single volume. The others are Two or Three Graces and Uncle Spencer. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and was pleasantly surprised by Huxley. Isn’t that a great cover?

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The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

methods of sgt  cluff.jpg

We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

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The Sea Change: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“It’s the difference between leading a Jane Austen life and a Tolstoy one.”

Emmanuel Joyce, a famous playwright, half-Irish, half Jewish, his fragile, much younger wife, Lillian, and their faithful ‘fixer,’ Jimmy all live together in various hotels and travel back and forth between Britain and America. Their lives are intertwined in the production of plays-although Lillian, whose only child died decades earlier, isn’t sure just what her purpose is any more. They live out of suitcases, and plunge into social lives in New York and London, and Lillian “whose active ambivalence about Emmanuel’s work nearly drove him crazy at times” actively ignores her husband’s many affairs. Even though this is a pathological situation, the dynamic between the three characters works successfully. Emmanuel alternates between longing for solitude and treating his chronic invalid wife like a china doll, and it’s Jimmy’s multi-tasking job to squire Lillian around when she’s dumped into his hands. Everyone gets along, the system works, but no one ever addresses the pathological aspects of this threesome.

But things shift after a dramatic, unsuccessful  suicide attempt by Emmanuel’s secretary and latest mistress. After the event, Lillian employs, on impulse, a young girl who will accompany them to New York. This young woman, Sarah, has the same name as Lillian’s dead child, and so Emmanuel asks her to call herself Alberta, just to make things easier.

the sea change

‘Alberta’ comes from a large, closely knit, eccentric country family, and she’s the daughter of a vicar. A character who really belongs in a Jane Austen novel, she’s a unique, unpretentious, disarming combination of naiveté and sagaciousness. To work as a secretary for a famous playwright seems a fabulous opportunity, but given the fate of the last secretary, it’s clear that Alberta could unwittingly bring serious trouble into the Joyces’ lives. She’s certainly a catalyst for change.

The story unfolds through four narrative voices: Emmanuel, Lillian, Jimmy and Alberta–with the latter’s story partly told by long letters home. These shifting voices give the story grace, dimension and interest. We first see Lillian through the eyes of Jimmy; she seems high-maintenance and he calls her a bitch, and yet when we hear Lillian’s voice we discover she has hidden depths of sensitivity. Emmanuel, who at first seems all ego and bombastic self-interest is shown to be a self-made man, inspired by his drunken, brutal father whose poetic, self-pitying rants spiked and became dramatic performances during his drinking binges.

But his father lurched and jabbered on; charged with disastrous vitality-bored by everything but his own imagination of himself and haunted by all the chances he might have had.  

The character of Alberta, who is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant lives of the Joyces, is an absolute delight. She has a delicious sense of honesty and loves to repeat pronouncements from various eccentric relatives. Lillian is terrified that Alberta will become Emmanuel’s next mistress, and yet she can’t help really liking the girl. Emmanuel finds himself inspired and renewed by Alberta, and Jimmy… well Jimmy’s a bit of a cipher–even to himself.

Here’s a taste of Alberta’s spirit in this quote taken from a letter she writes home:

Then we had an extraordinary picnic lunch in an office with two men who had been at the auditions. They just ate yoghourt because they were dieting, but they talked about what they would have liked for lunch all the time we were eating ours, until I must say that it got quite difficult and hardhearted to go on eating it.

I recently read and reviewed Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View— another look at a stagnant marriage, but of the two novels, I much preferred The Sea Change for its generous look at human nature, and the subtle way, through the various narratives, we are reminded that we all have private sorrows.

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The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

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