“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you are single or romantically attached, I wish you all a day filled with the greatest love of all:

Last year on Valentine’s Day I looked at novels by a famous couple: Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve picked Rebecca West and HG Wells, who must have been a formidably intellectual couple; I for one would have been terrified to go to theirs for dinner. They had an affair for ten years (one of many for Wells, done with his wife’s knowledge) and a son together; they were friends until Wells died.

Firstly, The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West. Set in 1928, Isabelle is two years younger than the century and widowed after her beloved husband Roy dies in a plane crash. She is an American in France:

“Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thought since she left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect.”

At the start of the novel she is having an affair with Andre de Verviers “He was an idiot, but his body did not know it”, a shallow man who likes his women to be goddesses to worship, not real in any way. Isabelle knows she must be rid of him:

“the generic woman in her who loved the generic man in him should have endless opportunities to betray the individual woman in her who loathed the individual man in him”

I thought that was a really unflinching summary of the end of their love affair, and West continues with this clearsighted view throughout the novel. Isabelle ends up marrying Marc Sallafranque, in a strange situation which arises from her trying to save face in front of the man she wants to be with, the cold Laurence Vernon. Thankfully these convoluted machinations soon stop, as she realises she does actually love Marc.

“ ‘He looks the funniest thing in the world, but inside he has a lot of the goodness and sweetness of Roy.’ She paused, because she had suddenly felt a click in her brain, as if these words which she had spoken for a false purpose had coincided with the truth.”

What follows is a simply plotted novel which tracks Isabelle and Marc’s marriage from Isabelle’s point of view, over the next few years. That’s not to say it is pedestrian, because West is a sophisticated writer of considerable intellect, and so what she creates is a careful character study of a woman and her relationship, with plenty of opportunity for wider social commentary:

“every inch of a woman’s life as she lived it struck her as astonishing, either because nothing like what she was experiencing had ever been recorded, or because it had been recorded only falsely and superficially, with lacuna where real poignancy lay.”

I love that about the lacuna. There’s centuries of women’s history lost in those places.

For me The Thinking Reed could have been shorter, but then I think that about anything over 200 pages 😊 In fact, I wonder if the fact that it dragged a bit in places was part of West’s art. It was a portrait of a marriage, and Isabelle was bored at times in it, so at times the narrative became a bit pedestrian too. If so, it was an audacious choice for a writer.

There was also plenty of humour in The Thinking Reed, more than I’ve noticed in the other novels by West that I’ve read. This ranged from the witty:

 “ ‘I am not yet twenty-eight, and this man will be my third husband and fourth lover.’ She was aware however, that in making this objection she was insincerely subscribing to the fiction that sexual relations, while obviously offering certain satisfactions, are so inherently disagreeable that persons of fine taste, especially women, are obliged to treat them with the remote precaution which they apply to garlic […] but Isabelle knew quite well that she did not find sexual relations disagreeable.”

To the downright bitchy, especially where fine society is concerned:

“she had in all her life never stopped talking long enough to give anyone time to approach her with any proposition regarding sexual irregularity”

All in all I enjoyed The Thinking Reed. Sadly I don’t think the skewering of the idle rich has dated at all and the two main characters were believable individuals who had a clearly loving but tricky relationship. The ending was surprising and touching, without being sentimental.

Secondly, Ann Veronica by HG Wells (1909) and one of the few male authors published as a Virago Modern Classic. Wells’ titular heroine is 21, beautiful, and feeling utterly stifled at the start of the twentieth century.

“She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient—she did not clearly know for what—to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know.”

She is the youngest in her family, and lives at home with her aunt and overbearing father. Wells is careful to make her father a monster though; rather he shows that Mr Stanley is as he is because so far the world has never challenged him to be otherwise. But this is a time of first-wave feminism, and he badly needs to catch up:

“He was a man who in all things classified without nuance, and for him there were in the matter of age just two feminine classes and no more—girls and women. The distinction lay chiefly in the right to pat their heads.”

Ann Veronica is friends with the liberal minded Widgett family and they open her mind to ideas of socialism and votes for women. Ann Veronica also wants to study biology at Imperial College, of which her father disapproves.

Early in the novel, she runs away from her suburban home with the help of the Widgetts, and finds lodgings in London. It is her naivety which enables her to do this. She has no idea the real risk she is taking, what is required in practical terms, or how she will be judged as a single woman alone in the city.

Although she learns quickly, she also takes a loan from a man who believes he has bought a right to her body, a fact which Ann Veronica remains oblivious to for an extraordinarily long time. Somehow, she survives in London and carries on her studies, at which point she falls in love with her married instructor, Mr Capes.

Ann Veronica was written at a very specific time. Suffragism was on the rise, World War I was yet to happen. Wells supported the idea of the New Woman, conveying through his young romantic heroine how constricted women are at this moment in time, and the forces for change that are being exerted. As Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett observes:

“The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.”

Wells makes Ann Veronica intelligent, but she is not swept along by any one idea. This is a clever approach, because if Ann Veronica became an ardent Fabian, or suffragist, or bohemian, the story would become weighed down by polemic. Instead Wells is able to introduce all these approaches without the novel becoming tediously didactic.

“It did begin to fall into place together. She became more and more alive, not so much to a system of ideas as to a big diffused impulse toward change, to a great discontent with and criticism of life as it is lived, to a clamorous confusion of ideas for reconstruction—reconstruction of the methods of business, of economic development, of the rules of property, of the status of children, of the clothing and feeding and teaching of everyone” 

What Ann Veronica is swept along by – and the reason I think the novel was so scandalous on publication – is sexual desire.

“And as she sat on her bed that night, musing and half-undressed, she began to run one hand down her arm and scrutinize the soft flow of muscle under her skin. She thought of the marvellous beauty of skin, and all the delightfulness of living texture. On the back of her arm she found the faintest down of hair in the world. “Etherialised monkey,” she said. She held out her arm straight before her, and turned her hand this way and that.

‘Why should one pretend?’ she whispered. ‘Why should one pretend?’

‘Think of all the beauty in the world that is covered up and overlaid.’”

Ann Veronica grows up a lot in the course of the novel and begins to understand how her own wants will have to be negotiated within societal constraints. She also learns when she will need to conform and when she will need to go her own way, even when the price is a high one.

“A woman wants a proper alliance with a man, a man who is better stuff than herself. She wants that and needs it more than anything else in the world. It may not be just, it may not be fair, but things are so. It isn’t law, nor custom, nor masculine violence settled that. It is just how things happen to be. She wants to be free—she wants to be legally and economically free, so as not to be subject to the wrong man; but only God, who made the world, can alter things to prevent her being slave to the right one.”

Although the character of Ann Veronica is somewhat idealised, I still really enjoyed the novel. The story flows along and is immensely readable. I’ve actually never read Wells before and on the strength of this I’m encouraged to try his more famous novels, despite not being much of a sci-fi reader.

“Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?

I’m simply discovering that life is many-sided and complex and puzzling. I thought one had only to take it by the throat.

It hasn’t GOT a throat!”

To end, my favourite Prince Charming… well, it *is* Valentine’s Day after all 😊

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Colette Week: Day 7 – The Last of Cheri (1926)

I thought it would be apt to finish Colette Week with a novel concerned with endings: The Last of Cheri (La Fin de Cheri). Here’s a reminder of my decidedly kitsch edition because it’s just so bad:

Thankfully I’m not quite so shallow as to let a hideous cover affect my enjoyment of Colette’s glorious writing (almost shallow enough, but not quite). The Last of Cheri is set 6 years later than Cheri, just after the end of World War I. He is no longer quite the callow youth he was: his affair with Lea and his experience of fighting in the trenches have left him cynical and damaged.

“he had come to scorn the truth ever since the day when, years ago, it had suddenly fallen from his mouth like a belch, to spatter and wound one whom he had loved.”

But, as the French wisely say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Cheri is still directionless, still without anything to live for beyond himself. Meanwhile his mother and wife have found purpose in war. Edmee is a nurse and consumed by her work at the hospital and extra-marital affairs, which Cheri agrees to.

“Cheri pulled out the small flat key on the end of its thin gold chain. ‘Here we go. In for another carefully measured dose of love. …’”

Cheri’s old friend Desmond is here too, still reprehensible, but like the women in Cheri’s life, having found purpose, setting up a popular nightclub where people try and forget what they and France have been through:

“They danced at Desmond’s, night and day, as people dance after war: the men, young and old, free from the burden of thinking and being frightened — empty-minded, innocent; the women, given over to a pleasure far greater than any more definite sensual delight, to the company of men: that is to say, to physical contact with them, their smell, their tonic sweat, the certain proof of which tingled in every inch of their bodies — the certainty of being the prey of a man wholly alive and vital, and of succumbing in his arms to rhythms as personal, as intimate, as those of sleep.”

If Cheri was told primarily from Lea’s perspective, The Last of Cheri is from Cheri’s perspective and Colette captures this wonderfully. Given that Cheri is so lost and directionless, the novella never appears so. The writing is insightful without being heavy-handedly psychological, and although set in town, Colette’s feel for the natural world remains:

“He noticed that the rosy tints of the sky were wonderfully reflected in the rain-filled gutters and on the blue backs of the low- skimming swallows. And now, because the evening was fresh, and because all the impressions he was bringing away with him were slipping back perfidiously into the recesses of his mind – there to assume their final shape and intensity — he came to believe that he had forgotten all about them, and he felt happy.”

This feeling of happiness is brief though, and occurs after a distressing meeting with Lea, so the reader knows Cheri is deluding himself. Like everyone else, Lea has moved on and is in a very different place, happy and fulfilled.

Poor Cheri. He is utterly lost and ricochets around without any idea as to how to remedy his emptiness. The crisis of meaning of a rich, good-looking playboy could test the reader’s patience, but Colette’s writing meant I had real sympathy for him. His life from the start meant he didn’t stand much of a chance:

“His childhood as a bastard, his long adolescence as a ward, had taught him that his world, though people thought of it as reckless, was governed by a code almost as narrow-minded as middle-class prejudice. In it, Cheri had learned that love is a question of money, infidelity, betrayals, and cowardly resignation. But now he was well on the way to forgetting the rules he had been taught, and to be repelled by acts of silent condescension.”

So, that’s the end of Colette week on the blog. I’ve really enjoyed submerging myself in her writing this week and I hope I’ve managed to convey just a tiny bit of how good she is. She has a deep understanding of people and a wonderful sympathy with the natural world. I find her evocative and capable of great artistry but with a real lightness of touch. Plus she wrote a lot of novellas, which always gets my vote 😊 She was a prolific writer so there’s plenty more to explore, which I’m really looking forward to.

Image from here

Colette Week: Day 6 – Cheri (1920)

I’m ending the week with Colette’s two novels about a beautiful young man, Cheri and The Last of Cheri (tomorrow). Before we go on, look at this awful book cover:

It’s the nearest I’ve come to being embarrassed to read a book in public (I still did it though 😀 )

My aesthetic qualms aside, let’s get back to Cheri. It’s a beautifully written, minutely observed novel and so the quotes are lengthy, as I inadequately attempt to give a sense of Colette’s mastery.

Fred Peloux, known to most as Cheri, is in his mid-twenties and his lover, Lea, is nearing 50.

“At the age of forty-nine, Leonie Vallon, called Lea de Lonval, was nearing the end of a successful career as a richly kept courtesan. She was a good creature, and life had spared her the more flattering catastrophes and exalted sufferings. She made a secret of the date of her birth; but willingly admitted — with a look of voluptuous condescension for Cheri’s special benefit — that she was approaching the age when she could indulge in a few creature comforts. She liked order, fine linen, wines in their prime, and carefully planned meals at home. From an idolised young blonde she had become a rich middle-aged demi-mondaine without ever attracting any outrageous publicity.”

They have been together for six years, since Cheri was 19. His mother, Charlotte, was also a courtesan and Cheri’s paternity is unknown. His beauty is astonishing but his personality is lacking.

‘Why is he so ugly when he laughs? — he who’s the very picture of beauty!’ She thought for a moment, then finished aloud: “It’s because you look so ill-natured when you’re joking. You never laugh except unkindly — at people, and that makes you ugly. You’re often ugly.”

Charlotte is determined to get Cheri married, and Lea claims she is at ease with this; she never anticipated her relationship with Cheri would be a long one. Charlotte and Lea have an antagonistic relationship but one of mutual understanding.

“They had known each other for twenty-five years. Theirs was the hostile intimacy of light women, enriched and then cast aside by one man, ruined by another: the tetchy affection of rivals stalking one another’s first wrinkle or white hair. Theirs was the friendship of two practical women of the world, both adepts at the money game; but one of them a miser, and the other a sybarite. These bonds count. Rather late in their day, a stronger bond had come to link them more closely: Cheri.”

Cheri marries a young woman named Edmée, but it is not a love match. He ends up listless and unhappy, disappearing for 3 months to live in Paris with his friend/hanger-on Desmond, denying his jealousy regarding the rumour that Lea has left the city with a new lover. It is an existence entirely empty and wholly unsatisfying to him. Cheri is worshipped for his looks and youthful energy but he is a deeply inadequate human being. His is an unexamined life, without purpose or meaning.

“For a moment he gave way to self-pity and self-contempt. How many good things had he missed by leading such a pointless life — a young man with lots of money and little heart! Then he stopped thinking for a moment, or possibly for an hour. Next, he persuaded himself there was nothing in the world he wanted, not even to go and see Lea.”

In this short novel Colette documents the evolving relationship between Lea and Cheri, and its sad conclusion. It is an insightful character study of the main protagonists, and an unblinking dissection of a relationship that is doomed to failure despite the deep love between Cheri and Lea. It will not survive societal pressures, nor the lack of humanity and compassion within Cheri.

“An undecipherable thought appeared in the depths of his eyes; their shape, their dark wallflower hue, their harsh or languorous glint, were used only to win love, never to reveal his mind. From sheets crumpled as though by a storm, rose his naked body, broad- shouldered, slim-waisted; and his whole being breathed forth the melancholy of perfect works of art.”

Cheri has been adapted quite a few times (hence my awful book cover). Here’s the trailer for the 2009 film directed by Stephen Frears:

Colette Week: Day 5 – Ripening Seed (1923)

I’ve a stinking cold Reader, please bear with me if this post is even more rambling and incoherent than usual…

Ripening Seed (original title: Le Ble en Herbe trans. Roger Senhouse 1955) has a subtitle on my old orange Penguin edition ‘An idyllic tale of a modern Daphnis and Chloe’, which I think is misleading. I didn’t find the tale idyllic; Colette is far too psychologically astute for that. So although its about a young couple discovering themselves and their love for each other over a long hot summer, its about pain as well as joys, and how the two can be hard to disentangle. It has similarities to Daphnis and Chloe, but departs from that story too.

Vinca “the Periwinkle, with eyes the colour of April showers” and Philippe who “radiated intolerance and a sort of traditional despair…for the period when body and soul are like buds ready to burst into flower” have known each other for years as their families holiday together in Brittany each year. Now Vinca is 15 and Philippe is 16, their feelings are starting to change toward one another. So far, theirs is a chaste romance, full of high adolescent feeling but without physical expression.

I’m not really in the market for teen romance – even Romeo and Juliet tries my patience – but Colette held me with this. Her evocative depictions of nature are to the fore as she captures a hot coastal summer:

“An offshore breeze wafted the scent of the new-mown after-crop, farmyard smells, and fragrance of bruised mint: little by little, along the level of the sea, a dusty pink was usurping the domain of blue unchallenged since the early morning […] the bleat of a goat and the tinkle of the cracked bell round its neck were enough to make the corners of his mouth quiver with anguish and his eyes fill with tears of pleasure. He did not let his eyes linger on the rocks where Vinca was roaming”

I also didn’t mind Vinca and Philippe’s contrariness towards one another. It seemed very believable for two young people who don’t know what to do with their feelings.

“There were still times when they could forget their love, despite the force that daily increased its tentacle hold and slowly but surely sapped their mutual trust and gentleness; and despite their very love itself, though it was changing the essence of their tender affection as coloured water changes the complexion of the rose that drinks it.”

Philippe is seduced by the older Mme Dalleray and so for the latter half of the novel the reader is waiting for the fallout from this sexual awakening away from Vinca. The title in French is from the phrase ‘manger son blé en herbe’/’to eat the wheat that has just sprouted’. In other words, people who are impatient end up denying themselves the benefit of a situation they should have let develop. As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is a story that deals with the pain of love as much as the joys…

Ripening Seed is a novella (122 pages in my edition) focused on building atmosphere and capturing a moment in time for two young protagonists. It’s beautifully written and Colette drew me into Vinca and Philippe’s world from the start.

Le Ble en Herbe has been adapted for the screen a few times (of course it has, young good-looking people in love a cinematic mainstay). Here’s a clip from the 1954 version: