“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

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Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

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This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

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Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead 🙂

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18 thoughts on ““One fine day.” (Carole King)

  1. Lovely reviews. I bought A Single Man earlier this year, not long after I’d finished reading Mr Norris Changes Trains. It’s good to have another Isherwood to look forward to, especially as it sounds even more nuanced than the film. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As it stands, 2016 has been an ordinary year for me as well. Although things haven’t gone terribly wrong there as been no progress, no achievements… it’s just blah. I don’t ordinarily pay attention to astrology but so unimpressive is 2016 that I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with the planets or the stars or the way they align…

    I HAVE seen the film of Cheerful Weather but haven’t read the book. I fear I got the order wrong… the film was fun but from memory lacked the subtleties of similar movies (Room With a View is my benchmark for everything – it’s a perfect film – witty, romantic, beautiful to look at).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right, there must be a retrograde Mars in opposition to Jupiter or something (I have no idea what any of that means but if it gives reason to the rubbishness of 2016 I’m all for it!) We’ve still got half a year left so your 2016 could still be filled with rapid progress & overachievement 🙂

      The film of Cheerful Weather looked pretty and had a great cast, but the trailer certainly suggests they’ve decided exactly what is happening, whereas part of the appeal of the book is that you’re not entirely sure. Room With a View was such a perfect adaptation – a worthy benchmark!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The very words ‘Bloomsbury group’ are usually enough to have me shrieking and heading for the emergency exit. But I did enjoy those quotes. Maybe…

    Ha! Well, I thought today would be the first in weeks that I didn’t spend glued to TV watching either tennis or politics – how wrong was I! It seems a day is a long time in UK politics, these days…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although the social setting is very Bloomsbury, her style is not typically Bloomsbury – if you liked the quotes I’d urge you to risk it 🙂

      It’s an extraordinary time – you can’t turn your back on the TV for a moment!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Karen! Yes, it’s funny isn’t it, our tastes can change without us even realising it, and its also so dependent on everything else that’s going on around. I re-read Middlemarch every few years and get something different from it each time, but I really hope I never go off it entirely – I’d feel a bit lost!

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  4. Two books that might tempt me away from watching the rolling news on the idiot lantern! I’m already utterly sold on the Strachey – dysfunctional weddings are the only sort I can stomach – and as I loved ‘Mr Norris changes trains’, I’m quite tempted to read another Isherwood, especially if the book is even better than the film (which I loved).

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  5. ‘Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:’

    How I wish that was my life! Where are all the cool movements to hang out with? Where are the artistic brotherhoods and literary sets? If this dearth of cultural revolutions continues as everyone is alternately getting excited about finding Pokemons in the bathroom and crying over Boris as foreign secretary, we will be forced to start our own. And I propse that this movements wears special hats.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good on Andy Murray for providing one of the highlights of what’s fast becoming a horrible year. It was nice to smile and cheer (and jump up and down on the sofa squealing) for once 🙂
    I enjoyed the film ‘A single man’ when I watched it a while ago, but think the book might be better. I wish I’d read it first as I love that kind of in depth character study.

    Liked by 1 person

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