“One should always act from one’s inner sense of rhythm.” (Rosamond Lehmann)

Although my reading and subsequently my blogging has improved a bit, it’s still not great. When I planned to review Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets for the 1936 Club, I thought I would write on the novel that precedes it, Invitation to the Waltz (1932) first. Unsurprisingly, that did not happen! Then I thought I’d pair it with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time for books on dancing, but the front cover is as far as I’ve got with that despite two weeks of trying. So I’ve given up and here is a post on Invitation to the Waltz only, but it’s wonderful and entirely deserving of a post all to itself 😊

It is Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday. She lives with her pleasant middle-class family, in a pleasant middle class house:

“These walls enclose a world. Here is continuity spinning a web from room to room, from year to year. It is safe in this house. Here grows something energetic, concentrated, tough, serene; with its own laws and habits; something alarming, oppressive, not altogether to be trusted: nefarious perhaps. Here grows a curious plant with strong roots knotted all together: an unique specimen. In brief, a family lives here.”

She wants to sleep in, although she’s still young enough to be excited regarding her birthday, but her perfect sister Kate wakes her from such indulgence. In this simple scene Lehmann sets up so much regarding the themes of the novel: love and irritation regarding family, being of an age where you teeter from childhood to adulthood and back again in a moment, the demands of society that need to be met. It’s a superbly subtle and clever piece of writing.

Somehow Lehmann manages to capture all of Olivia’s naivete, exuberance and indolence without her becoming annoying. She is on the cusp of something, she knows it but doesn’t know what. Her adulthood at once seems entirely plotted by social convention, and entirely open:

“I want to do something absolutely different, or perhaps nothing at all: just stay where I am, in my home, and absorb each hour, each day, and be alone; and read and think; and walk about the garden in the night; and wait, wait. …”

The novel is set in 1920, so part of Olivia’s conflict regarding adulthood is also about what it means to be a woman at this time. Kate seems cut out for domestic bliss, but the effects of the war are still working themselves out, and roles for women are changing:

“She looked at her nails: they were clean, but that was all. Kate had spent an hour manicuring hers. All these dainty devices, so natural to Kate, seemed when she performed them to become unreal, like a lesson learnt by heart, but not properly understood. Something in her fumbled, felt inharmonious, wanted almost to resist.”

The second part of the novel builds to Kate and Olivia attending the titular dance which the local landowners are throwing for their daughter Marigold. The day of the dance arrives and we meet the Spencers, who are richer and more privileged than the Curtises, but also welcoming up to a point. Olivia wears a dress made from flame-coloured silk which she got for her birthday, and like everything else about the highly anticipated dance, it’s not quite right, but it’s also not completely terrible.

The girls have had to invite a chaperone, Reggie, who is not horrible but is a total bore:

“Lady Spencer looked him over rapidly. Commonplace; but not flashy. Clean fingernails. Only son—country parsonage? Bad manner. But steady. Heavy look. Stoop—(scholar’s?). You never knew. He’d do. She dismissed him for ever.”

We also meet Kate and Olivia’s flaky cousin Etty, who would drive me to distraction in real life but who I greatly enjoyed on the page:

‘Oh, but how divine! You must introduce me. Do you think he’d say a prayer with me if I asked him? My very first love was a vicar who prepared me for confirmation at school. I adored him. How difficult for you, though. Never mind.’

The rest of the evening passes in a vaguely unsatisfactory way, in dances with people Olivia only knows slightly and has to make small talk with. Lehmann perfectly captures how hugely anticipated events are rarely the momentous occasions hoped for, and instead are often a mixture of tedium, excitement and being ill at ease, certainly for someone like Olivia who is young, awkward, and prefers books (at 44 I’m only two out of those three things 😊). The only time Olivia makes a genuine connection with anyone other than Kate, is with son and heir Rollo Spencer, who she meets alone on a terrace:

“It was quite an effort to speak to him; like coming back from being dead. She felt herself rooted to the ground and very calm, not embarrassed at all. Rather as if I might say anything. …

[…]

Their voices dropped into the air one after the other with an impersonal lost sound, as if they reached one another from a distance; yet the sense of isolation seemed to enclose them together in a kind of intimacy. His voice was deep and rounded, both vigorous and lazy.” 

There was an extra poignancy re-reading that scene knowing how it plays out in The Weather in the Streets, but actually the sadness is already there without the sequel. The reader gets a sense of Rollo’s dissatisfaction with his life, even as he leaves Olivia to return to the beautiful woman he will marry. At this point Olivia is unaware of the foreshadowing:

“[Rollo and] Nicola meet at the foot of the stairs and start to talk earnestly, their heads close together. They do suit. … She went away.”

Invitation to the Waltz is deceptively well-written. In one way it is a story of not very much happening, for an ordinary middle-class family during the interwar years. Yet it is also about so much: anticipation, disappointment, the damage that expectations of self and others can do, the deep-rooted sadness that people live with every day and never voice, and the love and pleasure that exists alongside it. It’s a novel of riches that I’m sure will reward re-reading.

To end, an obvious choice but I couldn’t resist such perfection:

“I like simple things, books, being alone, or with somebody who understands.” (Daphne du Maurier)

This is my contribution to Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week, and much to my own amazement I’ve managed to post on time – hooray! I really enjoyed taking part in 2019 and reading du Maurier’s creepy, unsettling short stories. This time I’ve plumped for two of her most famous novels which I’ve never got round to reading, despite enjoying Rebecca as a teenager.

Firstly, Jamaica Inn (1936), a gothic period drama set in the 1820s. Mary Yellan is 23 when her mother dies, leaving her orphaned and having to live with her Aunt Patience, who is married to Joss Merlyn, landlord of the eponymous coaching inn. Mary would like to live alone and run her own farm, which is clearly a ridiculous notion:

“‘A girl can’t live alone, Mary, without she goes queer in the head, or comes to evil. It’s either one or the other. Have you forgotten poor Sue, who walked the churchyard at midnight with the full moon, and called upon the lover she had never had? And there was one maid, before you were born, left an orphan at sixteen. She ran away to Falmouth and went with the sailors.’”

So off she treks to a “wild and lonely spot” 12 miles outside Bodmin in Cornwall.  Du Maurier does a great job of creating gothic unease, both in the scenery and the relationships within Mary’s family.

“To the west of Jamaica high tors raised their heads ; some were smooth like downland, and the grass shone yellow under the fitful winter sun; but others were sinister and austere, their peaks crowned with granite and great slabs of stone.  Now and again the sun was obscured by cloud, and long shadows fled over the moors, like fingers. Colour came in patches; sometimes the hills were purple, ink-stained and mottled, and then a feeble ray of sun would come from a wisp of cloud, and one hill would be golden-brown while his neighbour still languished in the dark. The scene was never once the same, for it would be the glory of high noon to the east, with the moor as motionless as desert sand; and away to the westward arctic winter fell upon the hills, brought by a jagged cloud shaped like a highwayman’s cloak, that scattered hail and snow and a sharp spittle rain on to the granite tors.”

Joss is violent and binges on alcohol, and Mary’s Aunt Patience is completely destroyed by her marriage. She serves a useful dramatic purpose, providing the reason that morally upright Mary doesn’t report her uncle when it emerges that he makes his money through wrecking: luring ships onto rocks, murdering the sailors and stealing the loot.

“And, although there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same.”

The portrayals of the criminals in Jamaica Inn are dated, with more than a hint of ableism and classism. But Joss Merlyn is slightly more complex, and there is a sense of the pain he has experienced in his life that has led to him becoming the man he is. By enduring her life at Jamaica Inn, Mary meets her uncle’s brother Jem, and romance ensues:

“He was no more than a common horse-thief, a dishonest scoundrel, when all was said and done[…] Because he had a disarming smile and his voice was not unpleasing, she had been ready to believe in him”

What follows is a well-paced tale of Mary being drawn into her uncle’s life of crime far more than she would like, yet also feeling increasingly alienated from the good people of the town. It was this latter aspect that interested me most. What du Maurier seemed to be exploring was how a woman finds her own way in the world, and how the easiest path may not be the truest one.

“There would never be a gentle season here, thought Mary;”

Through the course of the novel Mary learns that a gentle season may not be what she wants; that her authentic life is one not led within the heart of society. Ultimately she’s quite a tough heroine, and she forges her own path.

At first I wasn’t sure Jamaica Inn was really for me: it seemed a bit formulaic and I’m not really one for gothic romance – usually the men are abhorrent, violence is indulged and somehow supposed to be attractive. Yet Jem could be gentle with Mary and they actually had a laugh together which is not very gothic at all. Sexual attraction is also dealt with frankly, and although it is a romantic tale (a young pretty girl wandering on the wild moors, a ruggedly handsome lover…) in some ways romance is given short shrift:

“There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life. She had seen the girls at home walk with the village lads; and there would be a holding of hands, and blushing and confusion, and long-drawn sighs, and a gazing at the moonlight on the water […] They would look at the stars and the moon, or the darning sunset if it was summer weather, and Mary, coming out of the cow-shed, wiped the sweat from her face with dripping hands, and thought of the new-born calf she had left beside its mother. She looked after the departing couple, and smiled, and shrugged her shoulders, and, going into the kitchen, she told her mother there would be a wedding in Helford before the month was past.”

I wish I’d read Jamaica Inn after Rebecca in my teens, I probably would have loved it then. Reading it at 44 means it will probably not be amongst my favourite du Maurier – I didn’t find as much to admire as I did with her short stories –  but I thought she put an interesting heroine amongst the romantic tropes and her descriptions of the natural world are stunning. She also succeeded in writing a page-turning ripping yarn, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed when you pick up a novel.

The BBC adapted Jamaica Inn in 2014. I watched it, but the main thing I remember is everyone complaining about the mumbling:

Secondly, My Cousin Rachel (1951) which I thought was excellent. Du Maurier’s voice felt more individual in this and I wondered if in the intervening 15 years she had become more confident in her craft. The story and characterisation seemed more complex too.

It opens with a fairly graphic description of a hanged man that I could have done without, but it serves well in introducing the narrator Philip, orphaned and subsequently raised by his cousin Ambrose, a misogynist landowner, adored by Philip despite his uncompromising ways.

Du Maurier foreshadows the events of the story, and also it’s ambiguity:

“No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”

Ambrose in middle-age takes his winters abroad, for the sake of his chest. There he meets the titular distant relative, and they marry. Philip is perturbed by this, but not nearly as much as he is when Ambrose’s letters become infrequent, scribbled and paranoid:

“For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”

Philip hastens to Italy, only to find Ambrose died three weeks previously and his wife has disappeared. When he returns to England and finds Rachel is due to visit he is determined to expose her for the villain she is. This resolve lasts, ooh, about five minutes:

“I was glad I had the bowl of my pipe to hold, and the stem to bite upon; it made me feel more like myself and less like a sleep-walker, muddled by a dream. There were things I should be doing, things I should be saying, and here was I sitting like a fool before the fire, unable to collect my thoughts or my impressions. The day, so long-drawn-out and anxious, was now over, and I could not for the life of me decide whether it had turned to my advantage or gone against me.”

The local people are equally charmed by Rachel’s beauty and wit. Philip’s friend Louise, the daughter of his guardian, points out Rachel is beautiful – something Philip has not mentioned. The skirting around his attraction for Rachel exposes him as an unreliable narrator, insofar as we would all be unreliable narrators of our own lives:

““How simple it must be for a woman of the world, like Mrs Ashley, to twist a young man like yourself around her finger,” said Louise.

I turned on my heel and left the room. I could have struck her.”

What follows is what du Maurier seems so expert at: building an atmosphere of tense unease, where the truth of a situation remains determinedly obscure. Philip is naïve, but are the more sceptical viewpoints of his friends and advisors any more valid?

“Here I was, twenty-four, and apart from the conventional years at Harrow and Oxford I knew nothing of the world but my own five hundred acres. When a person like my cousin Rachel moved from one place to another, left one home for a second, and then a third; married once, then twice, how did it feel? Did she shut the past behind her like a door and never think of it again, or was she beset with memories from day to day?”

Whether Rachel is conniving and manipulative is difficult to ascertain and this works so well in sustaining tension throughout. It also enables du Maurier to demonstrate how a beautiful woman with very few rights in law is subject to the fantasies and whims of men who hold the power. Rachel remains unknown to the reader because she remains unknown to Philip, and yet he professes he loves her.

Philip is not likeable – he is callow, arrogant, and violent. But he is somewhat sympathetic as he knows so little of life, floundering around in situations he doesn’t understand and is painfully ill-equipped to manage. Ultimately it is this quality that provides the persistent mystery of My Cousin Rachel, a mystery we must all find our own answer to:

“The point is, life has to be endured, and lived. But how to live it is the problem.”

My Cousin Rachel was adapted most recently on film in 2017. I’ve not seen it but it’s certainly beautifully shot if this trailer is anything to go by:

PS Happy birthday Daphne, born on this day in 1907, and to #DDMreadingweek host Ali – have a wonderful day!

“I’m afraid of nothing except being bored.” (Greta Garbo as Camille, 1936)

Way back in the mists of time, 12-18 April to be exact, Kaggsy and Simon ran the 1936 Club. Although my reading has recovered somewhat, my blogging is still non-existent. So although I’d read two novels from the year, I failed miserably to write on them at all. This is my much belated attempt to recover lost ground…

I picked the two novels simply because they were the right year and in the TBR pile, but as it turned out they were thematically linked, both dealing with extramarital affairs. Spoiler alert: don’t do it kids, it causes misery. Yet although both novels show the pain caused by the affairs, they are not moralising or didactic. Rather, they are well-observed character studies of people looking for happiness in the wrong places.

The Weather in the Streets is Rosamond Lehmann’s sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (1932), which in an entirely unhelpful way I hope to blog on in a few weeks. I read the novels in order, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy the second.

The Weather in the Streets continues the story of Olivia Curtis, now in her late twenties and divorced, living an impoverished bohemian existence with her cousin Etty in London. When her father is taken ill, she catches the train back to the family home and finds herself sitting opposite Rollo Spencer, who was kind to her at the titular dance in the first novel.

“He burst out laughing; and she was struck afresh by what she remembered about him years ago: the physical ease and richness flowing out through voice and gestures, a bountifulness of nature that drew one, irrespective of what he had to offer.”

I thought that was so clever, the capturing of a realisation of physical attraction alongside a foreshadowing of what will follow: “irrespective of what he had to offer”. What Rollo can offer is very little at all, given that he’s married and has entire life away from Olivia, separated by class and circumstance, that she can never be part of.

“She looked away. A bubble of tension seemed to develop and explode between them.”

This tension is acted on and the two begin to see each other. I was particularly struck by the passage describing Olivia’s feelings after they first sleep together. Throughout the novel Lehmann switches between first and third person and here we are entirely with Olivia:

‘Then it was afterwards. He said, whispering:

‘I’m your lover…’

I thought about it. I had a lover. But nothing seemed changed. It wasn’t disappointing exactly…The word is: unmomentous…Not wonderful – yet…I couldn’t quite look at him, but it was friendly and smiling. His cheek looked coarse-grained in the light of the lamp. I saw the hairs in his nostrils…I was afraid I’d been disappointing for him….Thinking: Aren’t I in love with him after all then? …We hadn’t said love once, either of us…Thinking: It’s happened too quickly, this’ll be the end…”

Depicting the ordinariness of it all is a brave move but I thought it was the strength of this novel. It’s not romantic, it’s not two people being swept away, it’s also not sordid or bitter. Its individuals who feel a connection trying to build happiness within their unsatisfactory lives, in a deeply misguided way.

The Weather in the Streets is also excellent in its depiction of the loneliness of an affair. The title is from a scene where Olivia is sat inside Rollo’s car, looking out from behind the window. This separation exists in all her relationships to an extent: she lives in a society where emotions occur out of sight and you certainly don’t impose your feelings on others by daring to discuss them or letting social mores slip for a minute. For example, when your husband might be dying:

“The lurking threats of change, of disaster, retreated before Mother’s impregnable normality. Rather pale, rather drawn and dark about the eyes, but neat, but fresh, erect, composed as ever, preoccupied with the supervision – in retrospect – of the arrival, checking up on detail with nearly all her customary minuteness and relish…Mother was being wonderful.”

The affair exacerbates the loneliness it is attempting to relieve. This is in especially sharp relief when Olivia has to experience an (illegal) abortion entirely on her own – finding the money, visiting the doctor, dealing with the aftermath.

Apparently some contemporary critics thought Rollo was a total bounder. I didn’t read it that way; I thought he was a weak man who has always done entirely what is expected of him and then wonders one day why on earth he isn’t happy. Rather than reflect on his life and try and work out who he is, he carries on doing entirely what would be expected by having an affair.

“He said more than once, ‘Darling, don’t care too much about me, will you?’

‘Don’t you want me to love you then?’ I said.

‘Yes, yes I do terribly. Only you mustn’t sort of think too much of me, will you? I’m not much good, and mind you remember it. Don’t expect a lot of me will you? I’ve never been any use to anyone…’”

It is desperately sad but Lehmann never suggests the story is a tragic one. People endure, but unfortunately so do their unmet needs for intimacy, acceptance and love.

“’Don’t be frightened.’ I did love him, then. It was what one had always longed for, never expected to have – someone appearing quietly at need, saying that – someone for oneself…”

I had less tolerance for the protagonists of Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies. They were vacuous and self-obsessed and I was pleased to leave them behind. It was Stead’s excellent writing that both made them so believably unbearable and kept me going to the end of the novel.

The novel opens with Elvira Western on a train to Paris, having left her husband Paul for her young student lover Oliver (the lover’s names are similar and I did wonder if for two such vain people the attraction was how they saw themselves reflected in one another…)

She sits with a lace buyer called Marpurgo, little knowing that he will manipulate how her affair plays out.  He will exploit the very obvious faultlines in the relationship, but it never feels like much of a loss, as from the start Stead casts an ironic eye over the romance:

“ ‘You won’t have any more trouble – in your life! Think of that: here’s someone who loves you dearer than all the world. Put your head on my shoulder…’

It gave her a crick in the neck.”

Oliver sees himself as a Marxist intellectual, although nothing he does really demonstrates either of these aspirations. Elvira’s indolence is repeatedly emphasised and she cannot join Oliver in his pursuit of ideas if she is not warm, rested and fed, such as when he takes her to see Faust:

“she had not liked it although they had a box to themselves, because she was hungry.”

Neither seem particularly invested in the affair, more the idea of the affair. Oliver sleeps with lace-maker Coromandel and actress Blanche, both a contrast to Elvira as they display a degree of self-determinism, not that he’s interested. Elvira meanwhile, seems to just potter about. It’s mentioned that she gave up a promising education, but she seems disinclined to do anything, as Elvira’s husband observes:

“he works in the archives and reads her the political news, and she does nothing at all. She sits in cafes.”

When Elvira becomes pregnant, they both know they are not able to care for a baby, but they also vacillate between keeping it or taking the same decision as Olivia in The Weather in the Streets:

“This second marriage would be even worse than the first, because she had to cope with a brilliant young man’s impatience and disappointment. She said to herself babyishly:

‘I want a baby and a comfortable home: I don’t want to be part of the intelligentsia.’”

Meanwhile Oliver ponders:

“I am sending my seed from generation unto generation, a man full of humility.”

Spare me.

In many ways The Beauties and Furies is a novel of ideas. The sitting around in cafes arguing about politics, psychology and society gives plenty of scope for Stead to explore issues through her characters and it really captures some of the early twentieth century concerns.

“ ‘The real thought of the middle-class woman,’ complained Elvira, ‘is the problem of economic freedom and sexual freedom: they can’t be attained at the same time. We are not free. The slave of the kitchen and bedroom.’”

What stops it being overly weighty is the high degree of scepticism shown towards Elvira and Oliver, and ultimately I read The Beauties and Furies as a satire on bohemian pretentiousness and self-delusion. I’m not sure that’s correct but certainly Stead turns a sharp eye on conceit and hubris. She can be absolutely scathing towards her characters, such as this instance of Elvira becoming distressed:

“her prolific ego, masked in pathos, had them in its tendrils.”

Ouch! Although I couldn’t love The Beauties and Furies I still found much to enjoy. The incisive, well-observed writing did whet my appetite for more Stead – I have Cotter’s England in the TBR and I’m hoping for slightly less intellectual exposition and a bit more character-driven story.

Next I’m hoping to take part in Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week, which is running 10-16 May. Will I manage a post for it before the end of July? Watch this space… 😀

To end, I adore Greta Garbo, which is why I picked a quote from Camille to head the post, and why I’ll end the same way: