Friday, May 31, 2013

The Hopeless Wish List (Updated)

[It was high time I updated this post, and in fact it's high time I do a brand new one, with several newly-discovered but utterly hopeless titles.  In the meantime, I've made some updates below.]

A melancholy list of my most lusted after but elusive titles:

any novel besides Mrs. Lorimer's Family

Molly Clavering, a friend and neighbor of D. E. Stevenson, published at least a dozen novels of her own, but only one, Mrs. Lorimer's Family (1953), seems to have achieved enough popularity (and reprints) to remain available today.  It's charming and funny and deserves to be on the same shelf as Stevenson herself, but sightings of any of Clavering's other novels anywhere outside the British Library are as few and far between as really good Nicole Kidman movies…

A Chelsea Concerto (1959)

[Happily, this one is no longer hopeless, though certainly still difficult to find.  It's worth tracking down thoughsee my review here.]

Historian Virginia Nicholson's letter to the Telegraph recommending this book as "an unusually well-written and insightful memoir of the London Blitz" moved it right to the top of my "to read" list, but efforts have been hampered by its complete absence from U.S. libraries and the dearth of affordable copies online.  For now, it remains a lovely mirage on the horizon…

the early mysteries

[I did buy a copy of the Valancourt reprint of He Arrived at Dusk, and was very pleased with the quality of the reprint. Valancourt does excellent work.  Sadly, though, I couldn't quite engage with the book and have concluded that Ferguson's other mysteries may just not be for me. Perhaps sometimes the hopelessness of a book is more tantalizing than the book itself?]

Admittedly, I've found Ferguson to be uneven in her novels—she wrote two of my all-time favorites, Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary (1937) and Apricot Sky (1952), but also the considerably less exciting Our Dreaming Done (1946), For Every Favour (1956), and The Wakeful Guest (1962).  But I've also read two of the early mysteries she published under the pseudonym R. C. Ashby—Death on Tiptoe (1931), which was (briefly) in print from Greyladies a couple of years ago, and Out Went the Taper (1934), a badly weathered copy of which I stumbled across on Amazon—and they were consistently amusing and interesting.  I'd like to track down The Moorland Man (1926), Beauty Bewitched (1928), Plot Against a Widow (1932), or He Arrived at Dusk (1933), but so far it's an unfulfilled desire.  [Well, perhaps it’s not totally hopeless?  Practically as soon as I wrote this, I noticed on Amazon that a new edition of He Arrived at Dusk has just been published.  The publisher, Valancourt Books, seems to be relatively new and are offering some other interesting titles as well (but alas, very few by women writers).]

the unpublished novels

Maybe it's just because they're so hopeless (never published at all does tend to trump out-of-print for sheer obscurity value), or maybe it's because Gibbons has gradually become one of my favorite writers since Vintage started reprinting some of her lesser known works a year or two ago.  Either way, the novels of Gibbons's older years, The Yellow Houses (finished about 1973) and An Alpha (finished about 1980) appear to combine elements of fantasy and spirituality and seem well worthy of publication.

virtually everything except There Were No Windows

Along with Edith Olivier, Norah Hoult is the most completely and unjustly neglected of all the writers I've explored.  Persephone revived her wonderful World War II novel There Were No Windows (1944), but otherwise her novels are more or less totally unavailable for sale in the U.S.  Most of what I've managed to read has been through Interlibrary Loan from one library in Texas that (bless its little heart) has kept several of her titles on the shelf.  Novels like House Under Mars (1946), also set during the war, and A Death Occurred (1954) richly deserve to be in print and to receive critical attention.  Thoughts of what other great novels she may have written that are now virtually nonexistent haunt me in the middle of the night.  (Okay, not really, but it does make me really sad…)

Norah Hoult, whose books have vanished like Amelia Earhart
A Room in Regent's Park (1942)
The Death of the Nightingale (1948)

Two of Miller's works, Farewell Leicester Square (1941), about anti-Semitism in London, and On the Side of the Angels (1945), about gender relations in wartime, have been reprinted—the former by Persephone, the latter by Capuchin (and by Virago in the 1980s)—and both are lovely and well worth reading.  Unfortunately, these two other novels published around the same time have not been so lucky and are out of circulation in U.S. libraries and virtually impossible to find for sale.

The Family (1915)

[No longer hopeless—for better or worse.  I was able to find a copy via Interlibrary Loan.  But, alas, it did prove a disappointment.  I saw the significance of it in its portrayal of Victorian family life, but I admit I found it just too relentlessly bleak and earnest and moved on to other things...]

Mentioned in by Elaine Showalter in her book A Literature of Their Own in the context of a discussion of Ivy Compton-Burnett, this book has intrigued me ever since.  Alas, it remains scarce, and although many of Mordaunt's books are now available for free on Google Books or Project Gutenberg, this one is not.  They should really get with the program!

Ding Dong Dell (1943)

None of her novels are very readily available, but this wartime novel that deals with evacuees seems to have vanished from the face of the earth—or at least from U.S. libraries and booksellers. 

The Lark (1922)

[This one is still pretty close to hopeless, but I was finally, amazingly, able to snag a copy from a library in Canada, and a review will follow soon!]

Finding E. Nesbit's The Lark is no, er, lark
Most of Nesbit's books are so readily available they practically settle on you like dust wherever you happen to be—especially since most were published before 1923 and are therefore available from Google Books or Project Gutenberg.  So why, why, WHY is the novel that sounds most intriguing completely missing in action?  The Encyclopedia of World Biography describes The Lark as "a realistic depiction of two unmarried women struggling to maintain their financial independence by operating a boarding house."

The Underground River (1929)

[No longer hopeless thanks to the kindness of Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book.  See my review here for details.]

As everyone reading this blog must know by now, Olivier is one of my favorite obscure writers, but although I've read virtually every other word she wrote, this children's book published in 1929 is just a ghostly apparition until my resistance to spending $80 for one book gets worn down.  So far that hasn't happened.

Ordinary People (aka People of My Own)

[No longer hopeless, and, alas, below is not at all an accurate description of the book!  I was able to find a reasonably-priced used copy, though I haven't yet gotten around to reading it, but I did discover that it is set pre-war, NOT during the Blitz.  Apologies for my misleading description below, which was based on a rather poorly-worded blurb in a short bio of Pargeter.  Still hard to believe the book hasn't been reprinted, in light of Pargeter's popularity overall, but it's at least easier to understand why the interest in home front lit hasn't triggered a reprint.]

This one is pretty inexplicable.  How did one Pargeter novel—and one about a family living through the Blitz in a small village, no less—get left off the list of Pargeter works to reprint in the 1980s and 1990s after Brother Cadfael became a sensation?  It's bizarre but true, and copies of both the British and American editions are prohibitively expensive when they're available at all.  Someday…

Virtually every book Edith Pargeter 
wrote is a dime a dozen--except one

the World War II novels

Although her children's fiction has remained perennially popular, and her largely disacknowledged "romance" novels under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett are almost entirely back in print thanks to Greyladies, only one of Streatfeild's non-romance novels for adults has been reprinted in recent years—Saplings (1945), reprinted by Persephone (bless their hearts).  Her other novels, particularly the wartime works The Winter Is Past (1940) and I Ordered a Table for Six (1942), are tantalizing in their apparently total unavailability.

the early novels

Another odd oversight.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) is Persephone's top selling reprint and a really wonderful, charming masterpiece of entertainment and inspiration, but her several other novels—Fell Top (1935), Odd Shoes (1936), Upyonder (1938), and Leave and Bequeath (1943)—remain extinct outside the preserves of the British Library.

A whole slew of other promising World War II novels

The proliferation of novels by women writers during World War II, combined with paper shortages and other wartime factors, inevitably resulted in a lot of perfectly fine novels becoming impossibly scarce way before their time.  These include: Hester Chapman's Long Division (1943), mentioned by Barbara Pym in her diaries of the time; The House Opposite (1943) by Barbara Noble, who also wrote the great Persephone find Doreen (1946); Ruth Adam's one and only mystery novel Murder in the Home Guard (1942); Marjorie Wilenski's Table Two (1942), which a contemporary review tells me follows the experiences of a group of elderly women translators in the early days of the Blitz; Tea and Hot Bombs (1943) by Lorna Lewis, also set during the Blitz; and Richmal Crompton's Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle (1942), the plot of which apparently revolves around refugees.  These are all about as rarely spotted as an Abbott's Booby.

Richmal Crompton, author of the elusive Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, The Triumphant Footman (1930)

There seems to have been a long, prestigious lineage of invalid characters in English literature—characters who are "ailing" or "sickly" or otherwise weak, bedridden, or ill.  I admit I haven't ever really given this a lot of thought (beyond noting how often Jane Austen's characters seem to need to have a "lie down" after even the slightest of disruptions), but it turns out that there are even a fair number of full-length academic studies of this subject in literature.  (And if you expand the subject to include characters with mental as well as physical illness, you'll be able to fill a small library with academic studies of the subject.)
So clearly there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the presence of invalids in novels by women writers of the early to mid 20th century.
But nevertheless, I have found myself wondering, in particular as I re-read the odd little novels of Edith Olivier, if there may have been a shift in representations of invalids during this period—if, perhaps, there wasn't an increased focus on what might be called faux invalids, and a greater skepticism or sense of irony surrounding invalid characters.  Maybe it was the influence of Freud and his analyses of neurotic symptoms—not to mention his discussions of passive aggressiveness?  Or maybe it was just the coming of a more modern generation of writers who were willing to question the sacred and eternal goodness of maternal figures (since literary invalids seem very often to be mothers)? 
Of course, bad mothers are just about as common in literature as bad fathers.  Parental relationships are fraught with anxiety, guilt, or even outright hostility, so it's hardly surprising that writers like exploring them and readers like reading about them.  But a particular kind of bad mother—the kind who manipulates and dominates via her own supposed weakness and ill health, which requires that she get her way and that other characters tiptoe nervously around her in order to avoid upsetting her—seems perhaps to be more present and more subtly explored in mid 20th century women's fiction than in works of other times.  I think in particular of Diana Tutton's criminally out-of-print novel Guard Your Daughters, which begins as a rollicking, Dodie Smith-esque comedy about an eccentric family of daughters with a loving but fragile mother, with only occasional darker foreshadowings to let the reader know that all is not quite well, but ends with the narrator in a distinctly un-rollicking frame of mind as she begins to come to terms with what amounts to years of emotional abuse.

This is all more or less idle speculation on my part, since I'm not planning to do a full-scale thesis on it.  But I have been thinking about it, and I'll certainly be paying more attention to this theme in my reading from here on out.

At any rate, it is certainly beyond question that faux invalids are a favorite theme in Edith Olivier's work.  This theme figured in Olivier's second novel, As Far as Jane's Grandmother's, in the character of Jane's mother.  It figures again more prominently in Olivier's third novel.

Original dust cover, designed by Rex Whistler

The Triumphant Footman, set in the late 19th century, is Olivier's most cheerful and lighthearted novel—farfetched but funny and entertaining, and containing more depth and subtlety than I thought it did on my first reading.  Though still focusing on Olivier's favorite central theme of multiple selves, here the multiplicity isn't as tragic as in The Love-Child or As Far as Jane's Grandmother's.  Instead, Footman is something of a picaresque, a series of adventures that the footman of the title has in impersonating various figures, nearly getting caught (even nearly being imprisoned or executed), but always—as the title makes clear—triumphing in the end.

The faux invalid here is Mrs. Lemaur, wife of Captain Lemaur, Alphonse the footman's employer, and one of Olivier's most brilliant characterizations.  The novel opens with a lovely and sadly humorous indication of Mrs. Lemaur's practically diaphanous existence:

It was growing dark. Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawingroom, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the halflight. The room became ghostlike, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts. These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls—all of these things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window.

Mrs. Lemaur had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she observed neither of these. She liked being petted and she also liked to have a great many small objects in her room. Such were her sole reactions to love and to beauty. So it almost seemed as if she did not actually live in those rooms of hers which were admitted on all sides to be so unique. She simply lay on her sofa in them squeaking like a mouse, and with a mouse's view of life.

This "mouse" is completely self-absorbed, whining and fretting in order to keep her worshipful husband at her beck and call, but rarely acknowledging him—or anyone else for that matter:

Mrs. Lemaur's attention had wandered. She seldom cared to listen to the answers to her utterances. She only wanted them to be heard.

And yet here, as in all of Olivier's other novels, the least sympathetic character is not only the most vividly and realistically drawn, but is also presented with clear authorial sympathy and admiration.  It's likely that most of Olivier's selfish, dominating characters were based, at least in part, upon her father, whom Olivier described in her memoirs:

The autocratic grandmother was a type I knew well in my father and his sisters. It is a character which charms me, mostly because I could never be at all like it myself. Such characters are rare to-day. They suggest a life lived in a secure and unshakable setting. The tides of varying opinions may sweep to and fro outside it, but all the time it remains completely watertight. The house of such people is indeed built upon a rock. Fashions and opinions may change, the world look this way and that, uncertain what to believe or how to act, but within those impenetrable walls, life goes on as before. The master of the house remains its master. A personality such as this sounds harsh and forbidding, and it may be so at heart, but in the case of my father, I had seen it veiled in an outer garment of courteous old-fashioned manners, which simply made him impossible to argue with. If one ever attempted such a thing, he could always finally and definitely place one in the wrong.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the tyrannical characters are the ones Olivier seems to know and even to love the best.  For example, when Captain Lemaur suddenly drops dead on a train to Florence, the maid Mrs. Lemaur has terrorized on a daily basis feels a pang—and Olivier is able to make the reader feel the pang too—of sympathy:

By this time Dove had become aware that something was going on behind her. She stepped back into the carriage, and saw the terrible thing which had happened. Sitting down beside her mistress, she put her arms round her, with an uprush of tenderness and pity for the little creature who had never before faced any sorrow of her own, and had never observed that sorrow existed for other people.

It's a lovely scene, and a testament to Olivier's skill that she is able to draw out the tragedy of Mrs. Lemaur's lifelong self-absorption, even while showing a few pages later how even the tragedy itself becomes fuel for the fire:

She was utterly bereaved, and bereaved in the cruellest, most tragical fashion. Her sorrow was unique. It made her for ever important.

Although I've spent an inordinate amount of time on Mrs. Lemaur because Olivier's treatment of her is so wonderful, she is not really at the center of novel.  She is for me merely a particularly fascinating example of Olivier's ability to identify with the dark sides of her characters—perhaps a surprising ability in the upper middle class daughter of a canon who never married and began writing only in her fifties.  Certainly a lot of writers with more liberal or varied backgrounds seem less capable of presenting unsavory characters with such depth and compassion.

Original frontispiece by Rex Whistler

But the focus here is really on Alphonse's deceptions, or perhaps, more accurately, on the ways in which the other characters gleefully act as accessories to his deceptions.

Alphonse is the son of a working class couple, whose uncanny ability to mimic and inhabit other identities may have something to do with his wide array of monikers:

[W]hile his mother always clung to the soft Parisian syllables of his full name, Alphonse was known to his father and to all his London friends simply as 'Alf'; and the Superintendent of the Sunday-school wrote him down in the register, without question, as 'Alfred Biskin.' In Spain, his master had called him 'Alfonso,' and Alphonse accepted this variant of his name as readily as the others. Each new appellation, too, seemed to call out a slightly different aspect of his character.

First, Alphonse poses as the guest of honor—a famous Spanish museum director—at a lavish Florentine party, then later helps to "investigate" the impersonation, suggesting to police that perhaps a gang of international art thieves is involved.  Then he poses as an actor friend, not only playing his friend's part in a play but actually portraying his friend with other cast members before the play and while romancing the lead actress afterward.  At a Court affair celebrating Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Alphonse impersonates an Australian businessman who never arrived to claim his invitation, and he manages to rescue a piece of Mrs. Lemaur's jewelry which she has carelessly lost and returns it to her extravagantly, seductively, and without being recognized.  And finally, he poses as a French Vicomte and is accepted by an expert on that family's genealogy.

Farfetched indeed, yet what adds humor and some depth to these otherwise frivolous shenanigans is that Olivier portrays the other characters' eagerness to accept Alphonse's deceptions because of his personal charm and his ability to romanticize his impersonations.

As the Spanish museum director, for example, Alphonse speaks with his former employer, Count Pendini, and suggests that they have met before under circumstances which he shouldn't describe in the presence of ladies:

The Count was immensely flattered. He was a quiet man who collected butterflies, and he had always regretted that throughout his life he had never succeeded in doing anything shocking. It was a revelation to discover this lurid incident in his own past, and as he could remember nothing whatever about it, he concluded that he must have been very drunk at the time. This made him feel more rakish than ever.

When the real museum director arrives the next day, the guests from the party are unhesitating in their determination that the poor, frumpy, ordinary man is the imposter:

He was a short, stumpy man, with skin which looked as if it were thinly covered with lichen, greenish grey. Unlike most men of Southern race, the Señor had a dislike of the barber's shop; and he cut his hair and beard himself, chopping off knots of hair here and there as they got in his way, with no regard for the general contour of his head and face. Neither his clothes nor his person were over clean, and he brought with him a smell of very old tobacco.

Señor Ortez, indeed? They all knew better. Not this man, not this common, undistinguished person, but the graceful, aristocratic personage of the Contessa's party—he alone was the Señor Ortez they were willing to accept.

In every instance, Alphonse's seemingly impossible impersonations are believed because the characters involved want so badly to be deceived.  Alphonse's flirtation with Mrs. Lemaur in returning her jewels at the Jubilee celebration renders her unable to recognize him.  The actors in his friend's play find him more entertaining and charming than "usual" and so embrace him as their real co-star.  And the real descendent of the French Vicomte Alphonse pretends to be is so happy to have an excuse to obsessively rewrite the family history in a more romantic way that he cheerfully believes the most outlandish tales.

This added layer of irony doesn't make it any less true that The Triumphant Footman is Olivier's fluffiest and most purely entertaining novel.  But it does add an extra kick, for me at least.

One other element that I found intriguing here was the presence of so many truly obsessive characters.  God knows I can relate to obsessiveness, and the presence of these characters here made me laugh a few times. 

Poor Count Pendini is rather extravagantly obsessed with his butterfly collection:

Count Pendini never allowed the door of his library to be opened when he was occupied with his collection of butterflies. He declared that the least draught might entirely ruin some of his treasures, by scattering the bloom which gave so magic a colour to their wings. So before he opened his cabinet, he always hung a warning notice outside the room, and then no servant dared even tap on the door, for fear that the vibration might do some damage.

When a misunderstanding leads the police to his door early in the novel, he is hilariously undaunted:

The Count believed that a revolution must have broken out, and he made up his mind that he was to be strung up on the nearest lamppost, with the rest of the aristocracy of Florence. But his master passion ruled him. He determined that, even were he to die that very hour, his precious butterflies should not perish.

Captain Lemaur is also obsessed with collecting engraved gems and other rare items, and after his death Mrs. Lemaur becomes obsessed with them in turn, and is so absorbed in finding a proper method of display for her dead husband's favorite fan that she can only perfunctorily greet her relatives who have come to mourn with her. 

And there is a memorable scene late in the novel in which Alphonse and his wife again encounter Count Pendini, in hot pursuit of a rare moth and recklessly disregarding his risk of tumbling over a cliff.  Alphonse takes over the Count's obsessive hunt and becomes similarly obsessed:

The moth was a most elusive creature. He flitted out of reach every time that Alphonse thought that he had just got him. Mirabelle, watching from below, saw that her husband was hunting exactly as the old man had hunted. He crawled for a few feet, and then he sprang up and threw the net, only to be obviously baffled each time by the tricksy creature he was after.  Mirabelle could not help laughing as she looked on.

There seems to be some kind of symbol here.  Perhaps Olivier is suggesting that Alphonse is similarly obsessive in his frauds and impersonations, that he is always seeking something—a stable identity?—that is as elusive as the moth.  Perhaps she is even suggesting that after all the pursuit—whether of knowledge, of wisdom, of security, or of adventure—is what it's all about?

Or, admittedly, perhaps she was merely writing a humorous scene and I am revealing yet again my obsessive tendency to over-analyze…

Either way, The Triumphant Footman is a quirky, odd, funny little novel that only made me love Edith Olivier more.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s (1928)

One of the first reviews of Edith Olivier’s second novel appeared in the Times and read:

Miss Olivier’s well-written and accomplished story leaves the reader in some perplexity.  Its heroine is a girl who is brought up ‘not to call her soul her own.’ With her parents (and grandmother) she is ‘a charmingly lifeless being’, they ‘never saw her without her mask of good manners’. ‘The real questions were whether by now the mask had not grown so close to the face that it would never come off; and if it did, whether the face beneath would have taken for ever that vapid mould.’ The rest of the book is the answer to this question in the affirmative.

Jane’s weakness, if we could see that it was inevitable, would be tragic, but as it is it is only exasperating.

Frontispiece of U.S. first edition
There were better reviews to come, and Olivier’s publisher was so impressed with the novel that he predicted (incorrectly) that she would make her fortune with it, but I suspect that the Times review strikes at the heart of why the novel has never been reprinted and has been largely forgotten.  While I disagree about its being “only exasperating” (it was in fact one of my two favorites of Olivier’s novels on a first reading—but then again it’s entirely possible that I just happen to like feeling exasperated), the novel is certainly not as polished or accessible as The Love-Child

As tremendously likeable as I find Olivier herself and her writing, it’s also true that it can be difficult to engage with her characters.  She has a fascination for fragmented and stunted personalities—characters who have repressed their true selves, or are mere shades or creations of others.  Agatha and Clarissa in The Love-Child, Nicholas in Dwarf’s Blood, Mr. Chilvester in The Seraphim Room—they are birds of a feather.  The difficulty with As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s is that all of the main characters seem to be similarly incomplete—and the “heroine” most of all.  Although never quite reaching the level of Gothic that characterizes the second half of The Love-Child, this is overall a darker work that seems to explore issues from Olivier’s own childhood.

In many ways, this novel is the rather tragic story of a doormat yearning to breathe free—albeit with no very clear concept of what freedom would look like.  Jane is dominated first (along with her father, a successful artist) by her mother Margaret, passive-aggressively:

When Bernard was in his London studio, or staying in some country house to paint a portrait, he presumably lived his own life in his own way, but at the White House he only sat at Margaret's feet. She kept him there because she never allowed marriage to become intimate enough to smudge the picture he had made of her when he first saw her. Her sofa was a shrine. The whole household was in the conspiracy, and her servants adored her for her pretty ways and her uselessness.

Olivier perceptively spells out Margaret’s strategy for domination [which, incidentally, will be familiar to fans of another great obscure novel rediscovered by bloggers—if, sadly, not publishers—in recent years, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters]:

Nothing could be decided till it was known how Margaret felt about it, and her feelings on all subjects were mainly negative. Doubly so, for she was in herself the negation of a negative, seldom even going so far as to say No. She merely prevented anyone about her from saying Yes.

By contrast, Jane’s grandmother—the main, er, dominatrix in the novel—is more openly aggressive.  According to Olivier’s memoir, Mrs. Basildon was inspired by her own father, and the memoir’s description of her father has much in common with the novel’s description of Mrs. Basildon:

She seemed to have made a complete scheme of life as she thought it should be lived, and into this indelible scheme those who lived about her must fit themselves or go. She wove an invisible spell, beneath which no one could even speak in her presence of things of which she disapproved. Where she lived, the world took the colour she gave it. She was greater than the sun, for she did not shine indiscriminately on the just and the unjust. She selected.

Olivier also later wrote that Jane reminded her of herself in her youth, and perhaps Jane’s self-assessment that she is like “a piece of blotting-paper, absorbing other people's ideas, but never getting them clear” is something Olivier understood only too well.  But while the author ultimately did rebel—and brilliantly develop her own ideas—she realized that her character could not, since “in order to rebel successfully, the rebel must have his own conception of life, equally complete and equally believed in.”

Jane, tragically, has no conception of life at all.  At least, no conception of real life.  The sum of the influences of her mother’s passive-aggressiveness and her grandmother’s aggressiveness seems to be paralysis, a retreat into fantasies—of romance, of friendship, of independence, even of a kind of authority.  Factored into this is her trauma over her parents’ sudden deaths in a railway accident while Jane is sharing a romantic afternoon with Julian, a young man with whom she has fallen in love (in a manner of speaking).  She hears the news when he brings her home.  She is still happy from her afternoon, and her first thought is that she will be mistress of the house, that she will be independent and free.  In a brilliantly Freudian way, the tragedy of the moment that she is unable to feel on the surface is displaced onto a trivial occurrence when she is given tea to steady her nerves:

She did not move, and clumsily Julian began to pour it out. Her listless eyes watched him,seeing how badly he did it. A stream of tea ran back from the spout on to the cloth. She knew how exasperated Margaret would have been to see that stain on her choice embroidery.

And then suddenly Jane began to sob. She could not stop crying. She had broken down completely; and as she cried, she knew that it was not the death of her parents which had broken her. It was the sight of that tea being spilt. She cried wildly when she saw it.

This is the kind of touch that Olivier does so well.  It seems that Jane represses the real trauma of the moment, and by focusing instead on the disruption of a minor social nicety she foreshadows what we will later learn about her grandmother’s own sharply repressed personal tragedy.  Jane’s repression of the trauma of her parents’ deaths seems to result in a general avoidance of strong emotions and a preference for fantasy life, which in turn paves the way for her grandmother’s domination to take hold. 

Although I won’t provide any spoilers, I can say that even the spilling of the tea is importantly echoed, late in the novel, by Mrs. Basildon’s uncharacteristic carelessness with a candlestick…

Following the deaths of her parents, Jane goes to live with her grandmother.  She retains contact with Julian, and has a passionate interlude with him in The Gazebo (perhaps its central prominence as a symbol in the novel is indicated by the strange but persistent capitalization of its name?), a long-abandoned structure on Mrs. Basildon’s estate, which

stood on a little grassy hill, rising miraculously from out of a grove of immemorial ilexes. Their soft grey billows made great curves round the vivid green of the smooth turf, and they looked like trees in a tapestry—too ancient to be swayed by any passing wind of to-day. There was a sacredness about them, and they held the hill and its temple within a still circle where a long-forgotten world seemed to be imprisoned.

Jane’s love (such as it is) has been subjected to doubts because of her inability to trust her own feelings for Julian in opposition to her friends (and, of course, her grandmother), who see him as, in modern parlance, a loser.  The Gazebo is perhaps a symbol of the fantasy world in which Jane has to remain imprisoned in order to feel love unplagued by doubt or conflict.  Ultimately, like Agatha in The Love-Child, Jane wonders if fantasy isn’t better than reality:

He gave her all the colour that she had in her life. She felt that she wanted to keep him, as her secret, warming the rather chilly existence which was hers without him, but never bringing him into the open, where the cold blast of other people's criticism blighted her romance so cruelly.

The realities of life are heartbreakingly unromantic:

[T]hose petty criticisms made it more difficult to declare oneself on his side than it would have been if he had been accused of some great crime. Then one could feel heroic. Now, one merely seemed lacking in taste.

And this, in a nutshell, seems to be Jane’s main problem.  Incapable of facing conflict (“her chief aim in life was to avoid discussion”), she is unable to commit to anything at all except in fantasy.  Love, elopement, friendship, an imagined “calling” for convent life, even a patriotic urge toward nursing when World War I breaks out—all of these emerge as possible escapes for Jane as time passes and the novel progresses, but all would require the strength and courage to face reality with its terrible uncertainties and the inevitable disapproval of others.  Like Mr. Chilvester in Olivier’s final (and, for me, best) novel, Jane has adopted Mrs. Basildon’s view that progress is a four letter word, with the result that she merely stagnates.

Yet perhaps Jane’s own summing up of her life, midway through the novel, is her best defense:

“I don’t think my life has been empty. I was content. But perhaps I like emptiness.”

Despite the real unrelatability of the main characters and the impossibility of sympathizing on a deeper level with any of them, I find this novel fascinating.  It is frustrating and even oppressive at time.  It is repetitive and could have used a good editor.  But by the same token, and perhaps for some of the same reasons, it is completely unpredictable and just amazingly, wonderfully odd.  Of course, I have a high tolerance for oddness.  Your results may vary…

Olivier in her garden at Daye House
In addition, the theme of dual personalities—or even of the multiplicity of individual selves—is a compelling one.  Jane is shocked to discover that her mother eloped with her father, and can’t wrap her head around the revelations of her grandmother’s great tragedy.  Her interpretations of these events are simplistic and self-serving, as if she can’t acknowledge that these women might once have been different from what they are now, and can’t acknowledge the real human feeling of anyone outside of herself.  Part of Jane’s tragedy may be that she can’t grasp any kind of change or development, can’t understand any form of multiplicity—a fact that is highlighted early on in one of several moments of comic relief in the novel, a scene at a dinner party Jane attends:

The fact that they were twins made everything which was said by Monty and Perry sound successfully funny; although to Jane, in that first half-hour, their jokes seemed to have no point at all. The room rocked with laughter when they said they liked doughnuts, and the story of one of them" taking a toss at the point-to-point" and finding himself on his head in a ditch, "not knowing for the life of him which of them he was," was utterly incomprehensible to Jane, who still thought the twins were one person.

The concept of a multiple self is one, as I said earlier, that fascinated Olivier, and I have to wonder what Olivier’s contact with the writings of Freud might have been.  There is no mention of him in her published journals, but it is hard to believe that the younger circle of artists with whom Olivier became friends following her sister’s death—Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, and others—would not have been knowledgeable of his theories which were so popular  and even trendy at the time.  At any rate, Freud’s influence seem to linger lovingly in this novel, which is perhaps appropriate for one of Olivier’s most personal explorations of her own childhood.

This theme of multiplicity would return—handled in a much lighter vein—in Olivier’s next novel The Triumphant Footman, which I hope to write about here soon.
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!