No Signposts in the Sea – Vita Sackville West (1961) 156 pages
Continuing with the Virago theme from yesterday, here is another of their delightful offerings. I do enjoy Vita Sackville-West’s writing and I feel like she never gets the recognition she deserves. I suppose when your name is forever linked with the genius of Virginia Woolf, you’ll always suffer by comparison… No Signposts in the Sea is her final novel and it’s a brittle, slightly flawed gem.
Edmund Carr is a successful journalist and self-made man, who knows he doesn’t have long to live. As a result, he has followed the woman he loves from afar, Laura Drysdale, onto a cruise to unnamed places which seem to be southern Pacific islands.
The narrative is entirely from Edmund’s viewpoint, and at first I thought I’d struggle because that viewpoint seemed to be relentlessly bitchy one:
“ ‘it is lucky for some people,’ I say to Laura, ‘that they can live behind their own faces.’”
However, Edmund’s incredibly painful situation – both in terms of his life nearing its end and his unspoken love for Laura (possibly a reference to Petrarch?) means that he is more vulnerable than he has ever been.
“Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”
As he reflects on life and on the nature of romantic love, Edmund does develop as a character and begins to soften his brittle, urbane exterior:
“I realised for the first time how greatly our apprehension of people depends on the variation of conditions under which we see them, and thought it possible that we may never truly perceive them at all.”
Certainly the reader sees more of Laura than he does. In our objectivity something is obvious to us that Edmund remains unaware of, caught as he is in his obsession, his jealousy, and his confusion. Sackville-West shows how much those early romantic feelings can often be a reflection of the lover’s insecurities, fantasies and desires, and very little to do with the loved one.
“I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund, my darling, I love you.
Love does play queer tricks.”
No Signposts in the Sea is a romantic novel in its way though, because it suggests that by moving beyond these infatuated feelings, a deep love and rewarding companionship – such as Vita enjoyed with Harold Nicholson – is possible.
Less romantic are the racist views in evidence among the white, privileged, cruise passengers, sadly of its time but surely beginning to be outdated in 1961.
I didn’t think No Signposts in the Sea was a strong as some of the other novels I’ve read by Sackville-West. The characterisation is a bit thin, especially regarding Edmund’s love rival, Colonel Dalrymple. Vita Sackville-West was extremely unwell as she wrote this so could not have been at the height of her powers, but there is still much to enjoy.
“Dusk began to fall; I wished never to arrive; I wished to continue forever between land and water in a dream region so wild and beautiful.”