Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

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Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

“Ah, these continentals.”

It’s the swinging 60s when twenty-year-old teacher Jenny Bunn moves to London from the North of England, leaving behind her family and an ex-boyfriend who laid siege to her virginity and failed. It’s a fresh start that Jenny is after, but while the location has changed and the men have different faces, the focus is the same. Think poor little innocent Jenny Bunn (and what a great name that is) flailing in the treacherous waters of London while circled by a number of sharkish predatory males all determined to strip Jenny of her virginity. They each have their own M.O., some are more successful than others, but arguably the most practiced, and the most vigorous male in pursuit of Jenny is Patrick Standish.

take a girlJenny rooms in a home owned by Mr and Mrs. Thompson and the other young woman who lives there, the French Anna le Page, is Patrick’s most recent lover, and add to that drama the fact that while Mr Thompson is clueless, there’s definitely some amorous vibes headed towards Patrick from the waspish Mrs Thompson. Meanwhile, the high-maintenance (in Patrick’s opinion) Anna le Page seems to be launching into an experimental phase when she grabs Jenny and kisses her on the lips. Poor Jenny takes her dating tips from the outmoded Woman’s Domain which is sadly amusing if you think about it. This is the stuff of sexual farce, and while parts of the book are very funny indeed, I’ve never found the losing of virginity a subject of interest or of fun, and in the case of Jenny, a lamb thrown to the wolves, it’s occasionally painful to read of the way she fights off various assaults. The girl needs to carry a taser.

Ideas about her, she had had to learn, were liable to be got by any man she might nowadays meet. She considered she had led a fairly normal life until she was fifteen or so. She had had friends who were girls and friends who were boys, and she had known quite a few older, married people of both sexes, most of whom were nice to her in the ordinary way. And then quite suddenly, just over the weekend as it were, the whole set-up had changed. All at once there were men everywhere. Men turned up in large numbers on public transport, especially after dark–there were always more of them then; they fairly thronged the streets; they served and waited to be served in shops; the cinemas were packed out with them; they came to the front door selling brushes and encyclopedias; some of them had even penetrated into the Training College. Men had begun not only to get ideas about her in passing, but in a fair number of cases to stay on the spot and get going on putting those ideas into practice, A fair number of the fair number of cases had been rather surprising ones by reason of the age, married status, or general dignity of the man concerned. At least they had surprised Jenny to start with.

A good example of it all had been when she was coming home from school one day and the bus-conductor had tried hard to hold her hand instead of giving her change.

Here’s one of the funniest parts in the book when Jenny meets Patrick for the first time and he thinks she’s a friend of Anna le Page because, to him, Jenny ‘looks French.’

‘Well, I’m not,’ Jenny said positively, ‘I’m English.’ She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or–once each–Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had even been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her, and on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: ‘I’m awfully sorry, I thought you were French’ What could it be like to actually live in France?

While the male characters are a sorry, sex-mad bunch, Patrick is arguably the sleaziest of the lot. He grasps the fact that Jenny is not the sort of girl who can handle a quick, non-committal fumble under the sheets and yet he can’t help himself, plying her with alcohol, and guiding her into his flat in case she tries to “make a break for it.” While the novel includes a few female predatory characters, it’s the males who are seen in the most unpleasant light, so there are plenty of sexist discussions amongst the male characters that are guaranteed to offend (and occasionally bludgeon) a modern audience. The sexism of the male characters who acknowledge they prefer their females “docile” is not necessarily a charge I’d lay at the author’s feet. Amis seems rather fond of Jenny Bunn, and certainly she’s recognized as a wonderful character.

Getting through Take a Girl Like You was a bit of a slog due to several sluggish sections and its dated themes. A lot of the book’s humour comes from Jenny’s innocence and sweetness when it’s contrasted with those who surround her, but this humour only works when naiveté works as a protective sheaf, and while this is definitely true for a great deal of the novel, the humour doesn’t work when Jenny just doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, is plied with drinks, and on more than one occasion lands into a series of sticky situations. Of course, Take a Girl Like You was published in 1960, when attitudes towards women, the treatment of women, sexuality and sexual consent were vastly different–and that’s putting it mildly. So while the book was being read for the first time, it must have seemed to be “incendiary stuff,” to quote the Observer. Now the book seems dated and at some points offensive–particularly for its disappointing ending.  For a modern audience, it’s very difficult to imagine the dating scene of the swinging 60s, what was ok and what wasn’t, but I worked with someone years ago who was married with children when the 60s hit. He told me that when he was a young man, you dated someone and then if it worked, you married them–with his family background, premarital sex was never on the table. When the 60s hit, he said it was like someone ‘threw open the door to the candy store.’ There’s that sense in Take a Girl Like You–the doors are wide open, but Jenny, in a world where love is hopelessly tangled with sex, isn’t ready to move through those doors. She’s hanging onto her principles of waiting for marriage before having sex.

At one point, Patrick in a rare moment of insight chews over his actions against a “humble, defenceless little thing like Jenny,” while feeling amazed that he is the same man who mooned over a girl “fifteen or sixteen years ago” hoping that she’d just look his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Amis views his characters as they approach the disillusionments of middle age in the sequel Difficulties with Girls.

 

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The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the book-to-film connection. Films don’t have to slavishly follow the books on which they are based–case in point: Balzac’s  Colonel Chabert. In the film version, the role of the lawyer Derville is greatly expanded, and only the visuals of a film could convey the immense human carnage and the frozen dead at the Battle of Eylau. And this brings me to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds–one of six stories in this excellent collection. The foreword is written by David Thomson, and rather interestingly, it focuses on the Hitchcock-du Maurier connection. I didn’t really expect that, but was very pleased to read this essay in which Thomson explores the relationship between the writer and the director, noting that “they were good to each other,” and then listing the films Hitchcock made from du Maurier’s books and stories. There’s even an anecdote to consider–a conversation that took place between Truffaut and Hitchcock when the former asked Hitchcock “how many times he’d read The Birds.”

What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.

The foreword goes on to explain Hitchcock’s dilemmas with Rebecca & Jamaica Inn, and also how Hitchcock’s vision of The Birds gave us the film we have today. Certainly if any film captures an audience with its visuals, then that film must be The Birds. The Birds is, arguably, as iconic a film as Psycho, so there’s really no need to delve into plot other than to say it’s Birds vs Man. Yes there’s plenty of visual imagery in the story (the film was shot at Bodega Bay), but interestingly, for this reader, it’s the silences contrasted with the sounds that resonate in my memory.

the birdsThe book’s main character is Nat, a disabled part-time laborer whose WWII experiences help him to prepare for the birds. He lives on the Cornish coast in a small cottage with his wife and two children

He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down towards the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.

Here’s Nat and his family, trapped in their house listening to the birds trying to break in:

The tapping went on and on and a new rasping note struck Nat’s ear, as though a sharper beak than any hitherto had come to take over from its fellows. He tried to remember the names of the birds, he tried to think which species would go for this particular job. It was not the tap of the woodpecker. That would be light and frequent. This was more serious, because if it continued long the wood would splinter as the glass had done. Then he remembered the hawks. Could the hawks have taken over from the gulls? Were there buzzards now upon the sills using talons as well as beaks? Hawks, buzzards, kestrels, falcons–he had forgotten the birds of prey. He had forgotten the gripping power of the birds of prey. Three hours to go, and while they waited the sound of the splintering wood, the talons tearing at the wood.

The second story, Monte Verita, is a sort of blend of Lost Horizons meets Heaven’s Gate. This was my next-to-least favourite in the collection. This is followed by The Apple Tree, a psychological tale of a middle-aged widower who feels nothing but relief when his wife dies. This is an interesting tale as the main character, a man of limited self-evaluation, isn’t exactly nice, and we only get negative memories of his now dead wife, Midge. Delighted to find himself unexpectedly unfettered, the widower remembers his deceased wife as a passive aggressive long-suffering martyr, but there are hints in this story of a stale marriage and that perhaps Midge really did suffer:

So they lived in different worlds, their minds not meeting. Had it been always so? He did not remember. They had been married nearly twenty-five years and were two people who, from force of habit, lived under the same roof.

Through the widower’s memories, we see how he and his wife stumbled through their lives and their marriage, but it was the husband’s retirement that forced them together. Now Midge’s death has relieved her spouse from creating excuses to avoid her company:

The ideal life, of course, was that led by a man out East or in the South Seas, who took a native wife. No problem there. Silence, good service, perfect waiting, excellent cooking, no need for conversation; and then, if you wanted something more than that, there she was, young, warm, a companion for the dark hours. No criticism ever, the obedience of an animal to its master

The Little Photographer is the story of a young, bored, & beautiful married Marquise, so in love with herself, she can’t even imagine the trouble she invites to her doors when left to her own devices while on holiday. Kiss Me Again Stranger is the story of a young man who meets the girl of his dreams–or so he thinks. The Old Man is too tricky to describe and my least favourite story in the collection. This collection of du Maurier stories is well worth reading for the intro and The Birds  alone, but  what’s interesting here is du Maurier’s range: horror, fantasy, crime and the psychological domestic drama.

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Before the Party: W. Somerset Maugham

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a W. Somerset Maugham fan, so when I saw a 47 page short story available for the kindle for a mere 99 cents, I couldn’t pass it up. Before the Party, published in 1922, is classic Maugham territory–the relationship between a man and a woman set against the backdrop of colonialism.

The Skinners, a middle-aged married couple, are preparing to attend a garden-party, and we know almost immediately that there’s been a death in the family–the Skinners’ “poor” son-in-law Harold has been dead now for 8 months. In attendance at the garden party will be his young widow, Millicent, and her sister, Kathleen. The preparations for the party mostly concern the appropriate clothing and whether or not Millicent intends to appear in mourning.

This central theme of appearances–the keeping up of appearances and also the issue of how appearances can be deceiving–are at the heart of this simple little story in which Millicent who’s been “strange since her return from Borneo,” is clearly holding back a great deal of information about the dearly departed Harold and exactly how he died.

Maugham sets up the story perfectly. It’s a beautiful summer day and the event which the Skinners plan to attend is a garden party organized by Canon Haywood. Here’s a perfect quote that epitomizes the occasion:

It was going to be quite a grand affair. They were having ices, strawberry and vanilla, from Boddy the confectioner, but the Heywoods were making the iced coffee at home. Everyone would be there. They had been asked to meet the Bishop of Hong Kong, who was staying with the Canon, an old college friend of his, and he was going to speak on the Chinese missions. Mrs. Skinner, whose daughter had lived in the East for eight years, and whose son-in-law had been Resident of a district in Borneo, was in a flutter of interest. Naturally it meant more to her than to people who had never had anything to do with the Colonies and that sort of thing.

The English summer day and well-trimmed lawns are a far cry from the jungles of Borneo, but as time wears on before the party, Millicent brings the darkness of her home life in Borneo into the staid, respectable lives of her family and gets little thanks for it. Before the Party is a clever little story for its plot but also its wisdom. Yes those in support of the Empire can attend their little ‘fact-filled’ parties and nod with enthusiasm and self-righteousness about the missions, but when the dark facts behind the glamour are uncovered, ‘decent’ people would rather not know….

In Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, we see how some a couple of British people, far from their home shores, behave rather badly, and that’s the same idea found in Before the Party. Whereas as in The Painted Veil, a tale of adultery turns into a tale of redemption (with an aside into self-destruction), the plot in Before the Party is primarily about appearances. Of course, if the topic is the behaviour of exiles living on far-flung shores, we must also consider that some people who lived abroad were sent there because they either didn’t fit in with society’s norms and that the various colonial outposts are seen as last-ditch attempts to reform. This topic: exile to the colonies and various corners of the Empire for reform is found in M. E. Braddon’s Henry Dunbar , the story of a dissolute banking heir who’s packed off to India as punishment for engaging in forgery. In the non-fiction book, White Mischief, we see a community of ex-pats, many shunned by society, establishing their own notorious culture in Happy Valley.

It’s always fascinating to read about the dominant, ruling races running amok among the natives. Take Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France , for example, an excellent novel set in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities against the native population are horrendous, but indulging their bestial natures dehumanizes the officers and the soldiers stationed at the crude outpost. And that’s the thing about colonialism; it’s bad for everyone.

It’s probably no coincidence that after finishing Before the Party, I immediately picked up Joseph Conrad.

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Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against–there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”

Geoffrey Household novel’s Rogue Male had been recommended to me several times, but I delayed reading it; part of the delay came from the mistaken idea that it was some sort of spy novel. It wasn’t.

The novel, told by a first person narrator, begins with a simple sentence: “I cannot blame them.” And this sentence is the epitome of the narrator’s attitude to most of the people he meets and most of the brutality directed towards him. In essence, he accepts that we are what we are, that most of us are caught in roles not necessarily of our own making, and in those roles, we are driven towards certain actions. Amazingly generous and Zen really when you consider what happens to him.

Rogue MaleOur nameless narrator, a wealthy Englishman, has been caught just as he was about to assassinate a European dictator. He had the man in the sights of his rifle but hesitated, and that hesitation led to his capture (the word ‘arrest’ would dignify what happens) and torture. According to our narrator he thinks his captors are “beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” There are people, difficult as it is for this reader to understand, who actually enjoy hunting rare and endangered species.

They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission, but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government–least of all ours–encourages assassination. Or was I a free-lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be –a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?

The narrator is horribly tortured, and since he does not give his captors any valuable information to implicate any one else or reveal that he’s part of some sort of conspiracy, they are left to conclude that he is probably just what he claims to be–a hunter who wants to bag the ultimate big game. But no matter the reason behind his assassination attempt, his captors, and the narrator, know that there is little choice but to kill him. Under the circumstances–flayed skin, a badly damage eye, and fingernails ripped out, he can hardly be set free to return to England. Instead he is left to die. Badly wounded, our narrator is a survivor, or perhaps even a survivalist. Resourceful and intelligent, he flees for his life….

Rogue Male is superb–the best action-adventure novel I’ve ever read. We know every little about our narrator–except that he’s a member of the British upper class with plenty of leisure time (there’s a wonderful rift about Class X ,) who has wandered into a volatile Europe, crossing over from Poland into the unnamed country on the brink of WWII. We can, of course, guess just who is the object of the ‘big game’ hunt; the question is why.

I’m not going to say a great deal more about this extraordinary novel as to dissect it too much would give away the pleasure that awaits for the next reader. Suffice to say that our man makes it back to England, and while I thought that he would feel safe in his native land, the action only  intensifies, and the figurative broad net created to capture the narrator becomes much smaller, much more defined as the escape and arena for safety becomes increasingly more claustrophobic.

Leaving plot aside–something that is, after all, relatively easy to discover for oneself, I’ll say that at first I thought the narrator was an assassin, perhaps the classic unreliable narrator, but rather his motives remain opaque even when aiming his rifle. It’s only much later that the narrator finally comes to understand his own motivations.

The narrator begins the novel in a very bad spot, and it goes downhill from there as he tumbles down even his own society, reverting to the status of a homeless man, a drifter, and finally an animal. Household cleverly reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, and sometimes those roles reverse in a mere second, and there’s even a comment made about unnecessary death, the slaughter of a helpless animal that is a statement on the value of life.  The narrator does, of course, make a mistake or two, but the book is written so that we suspect immediately that a mistake has been made. This all builds incredible, almost unbearable suspense.

For this reader, some of the greatest fun of the novel came from two distinct sources: the characters the narrator meets who help him along the way–unsung heroes who, at great risk to themselves, show a little kindness. But the greatest source of delight came from Geoffrey Household’s incredible main character who honestly puts the James Bond types with all their techno toys to shame. Not only is our narrator extremely resourceful, but he’s physically tough and highly intelligent. He also applies the skills of a hunter to his escape and his slippery ability to evade the men who seek his death. Of course, though, it’s inevitable that he meets someone whose craft and stealth may match his own.

One significant theme of the novel is individualism. Here we have an individual outside of any government or official channels, who acts on his own, thinks on his own, and takes his actions to their ultimate conclusion. His individualism is apparent immediately from the simple fact that he’s the object of massive man-hunt, but as the novel continues and the action intensifies, the narrator, abandoning the resources of society, has no one to rely on except himself and his own considerable skills.

I can admire such an individualist as you. What I respect in you is that you have no need of any law but your own. You’re prepared to rule, or to be suppressed, but you won’t obey. You are able to deal with your own conscience.

Rogue Male was published in 1939, and here in the 21st century, it seems remarkably ahead of its time. If you read the NYRB edition (as I did) I’d recommend leaving the introduction until after you’ve finished the book. It contains spoilers galore.

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An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

If all the pages identifying its author were removed, I’d still be able to tell that An Academic Question was written by one of my great favourites, Barbara Pym. The book includes many of her types of characters: dissatisfied wives, potty animal lovers, peevish, backstabbing academics, supportive mother-in-laws, lonely spinsters, and vain, asexual men who frequently assume the role of confidantes. While Pym often writes of the world of the clergy, there are no confused vicars here, but the church appears in the background for its role of stepping in for that end-stage of death and dying.  The matter of author ‘identification’ is important as An Academic Question is an unfinished novel but it’s still quintessential Pym, put together from two drafts and Pym’s notes after her death by her biographer, literary executor and “editorial associate,” Hazel Holt. When I came across the novel, I was a bit puzzled. How could I have missed a Pym Novel? Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Of course, these questions were answered when I read the flyleaf. It’s certainly not Pym’s best, and I hope that first-time readers don’t find this Pym title first. Publishing an unfinished novel raises the question whether or not the book should have been released. As a Pym fan, I’m glad I read it, but this reading comes after enjoying all of her other titles, and I’d recommend leaving this to the end.

an academic questionThis is the story of Caroline, “changed to Caro,” for her identification with “poor Lady Caroline Lamb, who said she was like the wreck of a little boat for she never came up to the sublime and beautiful.”  Caro is married to Alan, an emotionally-remote academic, but there’s a lot that’s remote about Caro too. In her youth, she had a “Byronic affair,” and while there are no details, it’s clear that the relationship ended badly. We know, because he pops up later in the book, that this “Byronic suitor” was David, her “first love,” and it’s possible that the embers still burn. Did Caro marry Alan because he was dull and reliable, the polar opposite of that first wild and miserable affair?

Caro and Alan have one child, 4-year-old Kate, who’s mostly taken care of by the physically impressive Inge, the au pair, and Caro seems to have a horror of taking care of her own child. The few glimpses we see of Kate aren’t flattering. There’s a slyness to the child that’s vaguely repugnant.  Part of Caro’s dilemma is that she feels useless, but she’s also discontent. She married Alan right after finishing university, and while she doesn’t want a career, she’s aware that she’s “lacking any special maternal feeling and this seemed an even greater inadequacy.” She feels inadequate in all regions of her life: as a wife (her husband works with Iris, a very attractive, divorced woman), and as a mother (she thinks that Inge is much better with Kate). The subject of Caro taking a part-time job is discussed, and because of this desire to occupy her time, at the suggestion of one of her friends, Dolly, Caro finds herself reading to the elderly at Normanhurst, an “old people’s home.”  (Now there’s a term from the past)

“Alan thinks I ought to have a job,” I told her, “and as I can’t really help him with his work I suppose I’ll have to look for something else–something to do with research and card indexes he would like, but I’d prefer something unusual that I could make my own.”

“What about the old people’s home?” Dolly suggested.

My dismay must have shown itself on my face, for she went on to say that some people there were quite interesting.

“It’s for gentlefolk, as Sister Dew never tires of pointing out, and most of them have their own furniture with them.”

The idea of elderly persons of gentle birth surrounded by their own bits of Chippendale and Sheraton, not to mention Chelsea, Waterford and Meissen, was not one that attracted me, and I said so.

“Besides, what could I do there?”

“Read to them,” said Dolly.

“Read to them? How appalling! What should I read?”

“Novels and biographies, poetry, the Bible–do you know that Professor Maynard sometimes looks in on a retired missionary there?”

So Caro begins reading to former missionary, Reverend Stillingfleet, a man who guards a chest full of unpublished manuscripts that both Alan and his department head, Crispin Maynard want to get their hands on….

Caro finds herself involved in some morally questionable shenanigans, and while that might seem to be the novel’s central dilemma, an unexpected problem also appears in her relationship with Alan. Caro is very jealous of  Alan’s relationship with his  colleague, the very attractive and available Iris. Is she a threat or is Caro imagining an attachment where there is none?

An Academic Question is clearly much less polished that Pym’s other superb (perfect) novels. Caro, as the book’s central character lacks a solid centre. She’s sometimes sympathetic, but at others quite repellent. In common with other Pym heroines, she’s a little lost, not sure of her role in life–she’s more an appendage to her husband than anything else. She contemplates taking a lover, but an accidental meeting with an old beau seems to reinforce the tepidness of such a move.

One of the wonderful things about Pym as a novelist is that she is always very generous to her characters, and this author’s novels of manners are, above all, gentle. Somehow, An Academic Question is a little harsher and there’s some definite ugliness. There’s an abortion, an affair, and some cruel words spoken. Written at a point in Pym’s career when she was used to publisher rejections, she stopped work on this novel as she considered too much like all the others. Instead she continued to work on A Quartet in Autumn which is my very favourite Pym novel, and makes my all-time favourite book list. A Quartet in Autumn is one of the best books on the subject of aging that I’ve ever read, and while it’s sad in its depictions of the lonely lives of 4 retirees, An Academic Question gives us a peek under the layers of society on some of the same issues: those who are young, vigorous and on their way upwards in their careers, and those who are facing death. Alan can’t wait for Crispin Maynard to retire, and although Alan may not directly benefit from Crispin’s departure, he has the notion that Crispin stands in the way of his career.  The old must make way for the young.  Caro sees Crispin as kind and thoughtful, but Alan sees him as an archaic thinker, a backstabber of the first order.

The book’s best scenes are those of the nastiness of Academia. The dinner parties, the lectures–they’re all opportunities for conceit and snide insults. Pym understood the worlds she created, and so the scenes of academic life–the two-faced smiles and the backstabbing at faculty dinners and parties are perfect.

The biggest problem with the novel is that some of the characters are undeveloped and underutilized. One of my favourite characters is Dolly, a spinster who pours her love and her life into hedgehogs. Whatever else is going on in the world matters little when compared to Dolly’s colony of hedgehogs she nurtures in her back garden. She is the epitome of Pym’s belief that we all need something to love–no matter the object. Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a vain woman who lived on a Caribbean island  and misses the privilege of her colonial lifestyle, is mostly talked about and not seen. Her asexual, gossipy, vain son, Coco is in his 40s but still lives with his mother; his relationship with Caro is complicated and could have been developed. The most troubling problem with the novel, however, is that the two central dilemmas in Claire’s life are unresolved. They are both biggies and yet they just seem to melt away….Of course, it’s impossible to guess how Pym would have finished this novel before submitting it for publication. We can only speculate.

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Great Granny Webster by British author Caroline Blackwood came recommended by commenter, Leroy. The novel also had the advantage of being from New York Review Books, and since I’ve had such good luck with their titles, I decided to read it. This is a largely autobiographical tale written by Blackwood, the heiress to the Guinness fortune. The introduction from Honor Moore notes that the book was a finalist for the Booker, but that it did not win thanks to “the decisive vote cast from Philip Larkin who reportedly insisted that a tale so autobiographical could not stand for fiction.” Well so much for the Booker. I always seem to prefer the losers anyway.

great granny websterAt a mere 108 pages, it’s a deceptively slim read, and it’s a story that you think is taking you in one direction, but then by the final page, you realize that the destination was rather unexpected, and instead of a coming-of-age story, Great Granny Webster is the story of a search for identity through one’s relatives.  The story starts in 1947 with a 14-year-old girl, our unnamed narrator, who following an operation, is sent to the home of the fearsome Great Granny Webster to convalesce after the doctor advised that she would benefit from sea air. Great Granny Webster, who lives preserved in strict Victorianism, is attended by the crippled-one-eyed maid, Richards, in her mausoleum of a house in Hove. Just a few miles away from the “staid and wealthy gentility” of Hove was the “gay and tempting paradise of” Brighton, “tantalizingly near” but considered common and vulgar by the joyless, unbending Great Granny Webster:

Great Granny Webster knew that I was meant to need sea air, and this suited her very well because apparently she needed it herself. At four o’clock every afternoon a hired Rolls-Royce from a Hove car firm appeared at her door with a uniformed, unctuous chauffeur, who would then drive both of us, as if he was driving two royalties, at a slow creep along the misty sea-front of Hove. To and fro, to and fro, we would drive for exactly an hour while one of the windows of the Rolls-Royce was wound down just enough to let in a very small sniff of salt and seaweed-smelling air. 

Marooned for several months with her implacable, pessimistic elderly relative, the narrator finds the “grim and fiercely joyless” Great Granny Webster a curiosity–a woman with a “passion for pointless suffering,” and yet in spite of the tedious days of stiff propriety, there’s some undefined bond between the narrator and her great-grandmother. For her part, Great Granny Webster finds that the girl is quiet and “retiring.” While the girl is “chilled” by the frightening thought that she “would turn out to be exactly like her,” nonetheless she feels an inexplicable sense of panic when she finally leaves Great Granny Webster and returns home.

Ultimately this stay with Great Granny Webster sparks the narrator’s curiosity about her dead father, Ivor, killed in WWII, and his insane mother (Great Granny Webster’s daughter) safely locked up in an asylum. The narrator learns that her father visited Great Granny Webster frequently when he was on leave, and this, initially seems puzzling since the narrator can’t imagine why her father chose to spend time with his dour grandmother during his all-too-precious leave.  Unfortunately  “Death had obscured him as a reality,” and the narrator seeks the answers through his history.

The narrator’s Aunt Lavinia, Ivor’s sister, is a brilliant, glittering butterfly of a woman who’s worked through several millionaire husbands, and she is perhaps the ‘missing link’–a human antidote to Great Granny Webster.

A play-girl in the style of the ‘twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as “divine,” like an elegant and slippery eel.

Could there be two more diametrically opposed people: Aunt Lavinia–who surrounds herself with luxury in a life which is an endless, irresponsible party and a pursuit of pleasure, and her indomitable grandmother, Great Granny Webster, a woman who takes pride in a joyless life of deprivation? Through recollections from Tommy Redcliffe, a family friend, the family tree is completed with memories of Lavinia and Ivor’s parents. Tommy was an old school friend of Ivor’s and an unfortunate visitor to the ramshackle inhospitable eccentricities of the family home, Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. Eventually the layers of memory are peeled back to reveal three generations of bizarre women: the gothic misery of Great Granny Webster, fey, quite mad grandmother Dunmartin who’s sure that the “evil fairies”  have stolen her children and replaced them with changelings, and Aunt Lavinia, whose superficial, relentless pursuit of fun and pleasure masks a dark desperation.  Not the greatest legacy, then, if you are that next generation.

For its incredible depictions of decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Great Granny Webster serves as a wonderful companion piece to J.G. Farrell’s superb novel, Troubles, as the two novels could be describing the same family. Through Tommy Redcliffe’s recollections of his visits to Dunmartin Hall, “a gigantic monument to more prosperous and eternally lost times,” we see eccentricities cross the line into madness. Everyone in the Dunmartin family seems to have entered into a silent conspiracy that life there is ‘normal.’ The “grandiose and unwieldy” mansion comes with “crippling inherited debts,” so every year the house falls into deeper and deeper decay.

Having tried to exist by aping an English feudal system most unsuccessfully, it was only the scale of the diminishment of this enormous Ulster house that remained impressive in its period of retribution and impoverishment. Its vast stone-carved swimming pool, surrounded by busts of Roman emperors, still remained somehow imposing, though it rotted in a scum of dead leaves and insects. The same was true of Dunmartin Hall’s once valuable libraries, though many of the pages of their books had become glued together and blued with mildew.

Into this damp, rotting house with its leaky roof, rank, inedible food, and practically non-existent plumbing, Grandfather Dunmartin, in an insane effort to maintain standards hires an English butler and footmen. The result of this are horrifyingly, sadly hilarious.  And through it all, everyone pretends that daily life isn’t torturous despair.

When my grandmother spent most of the day shut up in her bedroom , she sat cross-legged on the floor and cut out coloured pictures of elves and fairies from her enormous collection of children’s books. What everyone found blood-curdling was that she herself had started to look very like the model fairies that you see on the top of Christmas trees. She had the same frozen blank expression, the agelessness that made her seem neither child or woman.

Through mordant and perceptive detail, the narrator exposes the deep, dark secrets of the generations that have gone before her. We are left wondering where the madness began, for while one woman is locked up in an asylum, arguably for violence more than anything else, is there anyone normal here–except possibly Ivor who died before he had time to prove his sanity. This deliciously wicked exposition of the grubbier side of the Webster/Dunmartin family argues that we cannot escape our pasts, and that we are more a product of past generations and our upbringing than we’d sometimes care to admit. Yet while our narrator learns about her family, there are many questions left unanswered, and Great Granny Webster manages to have the last word in her farewell to the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, Leroy.

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