Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

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.”

25 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

  1. I just reminded myself of my post on this from a couple of years ago. I agree that it’s not her strongest work, but still enjoyable. I made more of the class aspect: Edmund is deeply conscious of his less ‘well-bred’ origins, and feels out of place among all these privileged rich people on the cruise ship. Also agree about the disagreeable ethnic slurs. Interesting but not great. Well done on sustaining your challenge to post daily!

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    • Yes, I completely neglected to mention the class issues, and its a big part of the story. It contributes to his timidity in telling Laura how he feels. Glad you enjoyed this too even though its not her strongest.

      It’s looking decidedly shaky as to whether I manage this for the whole month but I’m enjoying it so far!

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  2. I actually have this on my TBR. I’ve not read any of her books before but I do have another one on the way that I purchased this week. I may read that one first and then this one, if this is not one of her strong ones.

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  3. I felt pretty much same way about this one as you when I read it. I love her writing, and it’s a very evocative piece. But the racism was very out of place by that time and I felt very uncomfortable. She writes beautifully though and it’s unfortunate that she always gets compared with Virginia, because their styles are so different.

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    • It is so evocative isn’t it? It’s a shame the racism mars it, I really didn’t expect it from a piece of that date.

      Yes, they’re very different writers and I think VSW will always be compared with Woolf, and there’s very few writers who can stand up to that comparison!

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  4. This one is of particular interest to me because it is on my Classics Club list as a ‘must read’. I found your thoughts fascinating, Madame B. You’re almost half way through NADIM and doing splendidly. I’m very much enjoying following your daily progress. 🤗

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  5. Another fascinating pick. I have not read anything by VSW – perhaps, as you say, because of the VW shadow. I like the sound of this, not least because of that enticing cover. Shallow, I know, but hey!! 🤣

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    • I think you might enjoy her Liz! I’d be really interested to know how you find her.

      Much money is spent by art departments enticing us with lovely covers so you’re not alone – I buy most of my books in charity shops and sometimes I’ll come across something that looks interesting but I think ‘I’ll wait til I find a nicer edition…’ so I’m definitely shallow too 😀

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  6. I quite enjoyed this one I seem to remember, but it isn’t my favourite of hers. I don’t think I really connected with Edmund, and there were some views that I was uncomfortable with. I suppose her class is in evidence in this novella particularly.

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  7. Your post on this novella is inspiring me to give it another try. I read it – my first VSW – several years ago, and while I quite liked it, I too felt the characterisation was somewhat underdeveloped. Now that I’ve read more of her work, my understanding of her viewpoint is probably better than it was back then, so I’ll revisit it at some stage to see how I get on second time around. Many thanks for this; it’s always useful to hear your perspective!

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    • I’d be really interested to know how you find it on a re-read Jacqui. It’s definitely not her best but as you say, maybe seen alongside her other works will help. It’s certainly interesting to read as her final novel, when like Edmund she knew time was limited.

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  8. I have read her in the past but can’t remember which one. This sounds a bit familiar. I think I would like it, minus the racist remarks. I do agree, she never seems to get out if the shadow of Virginia Woolf.

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  9. I remember loving the story in this one, but as others have mentioned, the privilege and prejudice can be overwhelming in some of these writers’ works. Years ago, I had a project in mind, to read through Woolf’s diaries and letters (and fiction) along with various Woolf-adjacents,and I set it aside eventually, for that reason. (Mind you, I didn’t finish Woolf’s fiction, and that’s a gap I do plan to fill even yet, as I think I’ve only two left to read. And now I am curious about the idea of rereading this one as well. Last year I read The Heir and I really loved that story too. But, still, loads of privilege there too, as there must be to write a story with that sort of title!

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    • Yes, I can imagine being immersed in that world for so long would become overwhelming! I really enjoy Woolf and VSW, and I find that whole period fascinating, but the unthinking privilege is infuriating. I hope you enjoy this if you re-read it!

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  10. Hmm, I seem to remember racism being alive and well at the end of the ’70s. The BBC was still doing sitcoms about race that are so awful they can’t repeat them now. Enoch Powell was still making speeches in the ’60s containing words we simply wouldn’t use now…

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