Review: The Rising Tide, by Molly Keane

In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane captures perfectly early twentieth-century Irish gentry: a social class in decline, although its members were certainly unaware of it.  Lady Charlotte French-McGrath rules her family and their estate, Garonlea.  She is a distant, cold woman: “mean, although not so mean as her husband whom she had taught to be mean.” Lady Charlotte treated her daughters with disdain, wishing they would marry well but looking down on all aspiring suitors.  As a result, eldest daughter Muriel never married.  Enid married for love, but paid a high price.  Beautiful Violet chose a man beneath her, but since “she was twenty-four and still unmarried the outlook seemed gloomy enough to justify the acceptance of the gentle ornithologist’s slightly abstracted suit.” And Diana attached herself to her brother’s wife Cynthia, whom she adored.

Cynthia is a beautiful socialite whose life revolves around horses and the hunt.  Everyone loves her, even Lady Charlotte.  But when Cynthia comes into power at Garonlea, her darker side emerges.  She is hard on her children, who fear the hunt much more than they enjoy it.  She toys with people’s emotions, and manipulates them to her advantage.  She gets worse with age and with drink.  As her children come of age, the power struggle begins again.  Cynthia struggles to hold on to a certain lifestyle, even as the younger generation is looking for something very different.

The characters made this book.  Lady Charlotte is really awful.  Cynthia is simultaneously likeable and horrible, and her son Simon is a more sympathetic character, uncomfortable with the station he was born to.  The loyal Diana is ever-present as Cynthia’s doting conscience.  And there are many others who revolve in and out of Cynthia’s life, all drawn with Keane’s trademark wit.  While this isn’t my favorite Molly Keane (that would be Good Behaviour), it was still an enjoyable satire.

Review: The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel is unusual, in that it has a male protagonist.  Vinny Tumulty is a fifty-ish man living under the thumb of his domineering mother.  He has a large number of women friends, having been unable to muster the passion required to turn friendship into romance.  In the opening pages, Vinny has come to the aid of his recently widowed friend Isabella, who lives in the aptly named seaside town of Seething.  Early on, Taylor makes sure we know Vinny is not one to learn from his mistakes:

 

Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience. (p.22)

While visiting Isabella, Vinny spies the young and beautiful Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title.  He makes a point of meeting her, and is smitten.  Emily lives a reclusive life with her sister Rose, who runs an inn.  Emily’s primary responsibility is caring for Rose’s daughter, Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently. Rose is repressed and insecure, resenting her sister’s good looks while being “obsessed by sex as only those who fear it can be.”  As Vinny and Emily’s relationship develops she becomes increasingly agitated and resentful.  But Vinny has a secret in his past, that threatens his plans for wedded bliss with Emily.  As he is trying to defuse the situation, others are trying to bring it to light.

The Sleeping Beauty is a richly layered story with several sub-plots that could easily have been short stories or novels in their own right.  There is of course Rose, who is alone even though she is surrounded by others.  A bevy of middle-aged women give comic relief through their past-times and attitudes.  Isabella’s son, Laurence, is a moody character study and his romance with a girl in town runs along in parallel to Vinny & Emily, providing contrast as well as depth.  These threads become intertwined as Vinny becomes further involved with Emily, and the book appears to be heading towards a dramatic conclusion.  However, the ending left a lot unanswered for me.  This is characteristic of Taylor, who doesn’t go in for high drama, and as with her earlier work it has kept me reflecting on The Sleeping Beauty long after I turned the last page.

Review: A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor

Harriet and Vesey grew up together as playmates and friends.  One summer while caring for Vesey’s cousins, they realize their affection has blossomed into something more:

‘I cannot put down what happened this evening,’ she wrote mysteriously. ‘Nor is there any need, for I shall remember all my life.’ And, although she was so mysterious, she was right. Much in those diaries would puzzle her when she turned their pages in middle age, old age; many allusions would be meaningless; week after week would seem to have been wiped away; but that one entry, so proudly cryptic, would always evoke the evening in the woods, the shadows, the layers of leaves shutting out the sky, the bronze mosses at the of the trees, the floating sound their voices had, and that explosive, echoing cry of the cuckoo. (p.21-22)

But Vesey goes off to Oxford and Harriet remains at home.  She picks up tidbits of news from his aunt and uncle, but they lose touch and eventually Harriet makes her own way.   She finds a job in a gown shop, marries Charles, a respected business man, and they have a daughter, Betsy.  Harriet thinks of Vesey often, but for the most part she is a reasonably happy wife and mother.

Until one day, nearly 20 years later, when Harriet and Vesey run into each other at a dance.  Dancing with Vesey, Harriet is overcome with memories and emotion. They do not see each other often — Vesey is in the theatre, and travels around the country — but they exchange letters and find reasons to meet anytime he is nearby.  Charles feels Harriet’s distance, but can neither draw her out nor express his own feelings.  The strain rubs off on Betsy, too.  Even though Harriet sees how differently people respond to her, she desperately wants to believe they’re fine.  It’s just her, responding differently to them.

Taylor’s writing is exquisite.  The story unfolds very slowly, with the rich observational detail Taylor is known for.  And it’s emotionally intense as well. In the first part, the reader feels the pain of young love — we want Harriet and Vesey to accept the love they feel for each other, and live happily ever after.  We feel pain in the awkwardness of their parting, and the pain returns when they meet again in middle age.  By that time, I had come to appreciate her marriage to Charles.  I was caught up in Harriet’s dilemma, simultaneously wishing for things that might have been, and wanting to maintain the comfort and security of her family life.  The ending is ambiguous, and yet felt completely right.

In her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman called this “Elizabeth’s most flawless, most nearly perfect novel.”   I couldn’t agree more.

Review: Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby

They had little use for truth, even though they paid lip service to it. Those facts which failed to support their own particular vision of the perfect world, they tacitly ignored They spoke of scientific research, meaning the exploration of phenomena advantageous to their cause. They inquired if  men or women were ‘sound,’ with the intention of discovering not their habitual rectitude or sanity, but the degree of their devotion to a particular point of view. … They sought to mould society according to some well-designed pattern of good, to impose their wills upon the shifting wills of men, their ideals upon the mobile framework of the universe.  (p. 126)

In her fourth novel, Winifred Holtby pokes fun at earnest souls who labor tirelessly for a cause.  In this case, the “cause” is the Christian Cinema Company, founded by Caroline Denton-Smyth to advocate for better morals in cinema, and produce “pure” films made in Britain.  Caroline is in her 70s, rather dotty, prone to wearing feathers and beads and viewing the world through her lorgnette.  She’s convinced the company’s success is just around the corner.  But the truth is, they are sorely lacking in funds, and without a single film to their name.  One of the board members is a scientist with a breakthrough film-making process, but he demands capital and Caroline is determined to raise it.  Her days are spent in the fruitless pursuit of funds, writing letters and speaking at women’s institute meetings.

The plot is rather sparse; its characters make this book a delight.  Holtby tells Caroline’s story, and that of the Christian Cinema Company, through the eyes of each board member in turn.  Holtby manages to draw each character as both an authentic person and a caricature. Basil Reginald Anthony St Denis is persuaded by his partner to give up his leisurely lifestyle to become the company’s chairman.  Joseph Isenbaum joins the board in hopes of making connections that will benefit his son.  Eleanor de la Roux is Caroline’s cousin. Recently arrived in London, she joins the board out of sympathy and because she needs something to do.  Hugh McAfee invented the “Tona Perfecta Film,” which threatened to revolutionize the industry until color techniques came along.  Roger Mortimer is a minister, and the object of Caroline’s affections.  And Clifton Johnson is a swindler and sole proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing.  Chapters devoted to each character provide context, fill in background details, and advance the storyline. They also portray other characters through new lenses, showing traits and motivation that had not emerged in their personal chapter.

Holtby’s earlier novels were more strident, beating the drum of social activism and causes she was personally committed to.  In Poor Caroline, her tongue is firmly in cheek.  She mines familiar philanthropic territory, satirizing the causes themselves while poking fun at human nature and our motivations for doing charitable work.  Anyone who has ever been involved in charitable fund-raising will enjoy her rich wit.

* FTC Disclosure: This e-book was sent to me by the US distributor, Independent Publishers Group, for review on my blog.

Review: A Wreath of Roses, by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor writes such exquisite prose, within a few short pages I can be whisked away to a different time and place.   Take, for example, the opening of A Wreath of Roses.  A woman arrives at a train station on a hot summer day.  She and another passenger wait for the next train.  The station is quiet; a chair scrapes the floor, and traffic can be heard outside the station.  It was all so leisurely, and then:

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.  (p. 3)

Isn’t that ominous?  Aren’t you overcome by a sense of foreboding?  And you want to know what the “happening” was, don’t you?

You’ll have to read it to find out, but suffice to say the “happening” causes Camilla and Richard, the people waiting for the train, to meet.  Camilla is en route to a holiday with her long-time friend Liz and Liz’s friend and former governess, Frances.  Richard is … well, he’s rather vague about his purpose.  But he’s good-looking and a smooth talker, and Camilla is surprised to find herself attracted to him.  Camilla is also very conflicted about her friendship with Liz, which has changed since Liz married and had a baby.

What had seemed plenty in other years, now appeared threadbare. She felt a restlessness, like milk beginning to sway up to the boil, a trembling excitement, sometimes pleasurable as it had been in the Griffin last night; but often painful, as it was when she held Liz’s baby or watched Liz with him. She knew that what had charmed her in other summers could not charm her now; and felt that, because of this, the holiday must be different and had been different from the beginning, different at the railway station, at her arrival, different with Liz. The long series of these summer holidays from girlhood onwards was suddenly broken.  (p. 39)

Through Richard, Camilla can escape the painful emotions that swell while she’s with Liz and Frances. But he preys on Camilla’s insecurity and jealousy, and weaves an elaborate tale about his past to draw her closer.  Richard is vaguely sinister, but it takes the reader and Camilla quite a while to discover the truth.  Meanwhile, Liz and Frances experience drama of their own: Liz is uncertain about her marriage; Frances anticipates the arrival of a man she has corresponded with for years, but never met.

Taylor’s characterizations are as finely drawn as the scenes they inhabit.  Her keen powers of observation enabled her to squirrel away a myriad of details that would later be embodied in her characters.   In A Wreath of Roses, Liz and Camilla represent two very different kinds of women.  Or, as Nicola Beauman suggested in her biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps they represent two sides of Taylor herself: a wife and mother, and an independent but vulnerable woman.  The plot is almost secondary, serving as a way to explore each woman’s emotions and world view.  And yet, there’s just enough plot to hold the reader’s interest and make them care about these women and their search for happiness and fulfillment.

Review: The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence

Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day. (p. 1)

Hagar Shipley has been through a lot, as you’d expect from anyone who has lived 90 years.  Born in a small Manitoba town, she grew up the daughter of a shopkeeper.  Her mother died in childbirth, and one of her two brothers also died young.  Hagar grew up a strong, independent woman.  She did not distinguish herself in any way that was unusual for her time, but her fierce independence and ability to stand up for her rights set her apart from most early 20th-century women.  Now nearing the end of her life, Hagar lives with her son Marvin and daughter-in-law Doris, and is rapidly losing the independence she values so highly.

Hagar has lived with Marvin and Doris for several years, but recently her needs have become more acute.  She needs professional care, but actively resists any proposed change in living arrangements.  She spends a lot of time inside her head, reflecting on life’s highs and lows:  the man she married, the sons she raised, the son she lost, and the townspeople who came and went over the years. A portrait emerges that provides tremendous insight to Hagar’s character.  The flashbacks are interspersed with present-day events: a visit from the minister, arguments with Marvin and Doris, and various evidence of Hagar’s decline, which she often fails to recognize or acknowledge. Eventually Marvin and Doris convince Hagar to go on an outing, and they visit a care facility.  It appears Hagar might actually accept the possibility of living there, and then a startling event dramatically alters the course of the story, and Hagar’s life.

I found this novel very realistic and moving.  Despite Hagar’s intense stubbornness and insensitivity, I liked her very much, and I felt very sorry for her as she lost the ability to do things on her own.  Marvin and Doris’ characters were less well developed, and they sometimes seemed a bit callous, but I also sympathized with them as they took on responsibility they probably never anticipated.  The last chapters were difficult to read, because you knew where the story had to lead, and I was sorry to say good-bye to such a memorable character as Hagar Shipley.

Review: Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane

For certain families, keeping up appearances in public is of prime importance.  The St Charles family is one of these.  Daughter Aroon, now the ungainly, unmarried daughter, looks back on her childhood at Temple Alice and how expectations of “good behaviour” ultimately brought unhappiness and even tragedy.  Aroon and her brother Hubert grew up in the care of a cool and distant mother and a philandering father.  Mummie preferred to look the other way, rather than confront Papa’s infidelity.  Papa loved his children on one level, but preferred riding, fox-hunting, and women to life at home.  When Papa is wounded in the war, his convalescence provides Aroon and Hurbert an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a new level intimacy with their father.  Mummie remains aloof, and can’t hold back a sadistic glow when she realizes her husband is unable to ride.

As Aroon grows into a young woman, she sets her sights on Hubert’s best friend Richard.  She wildly misinterprets his behavior towards her, and convinces herself they are lovers. She fails to see what’s obvious to the reader: Richard and Hubert are much more than friends.  When Richard suddenly goes off to Africa, Aroon continues her delusion, sure he will return for her one day.  When a letter finally arrives, she is at first disappointed — until she finds a way to infuse each paragraph with hidden meaning.

Inevitably, the family’s fortunes change.  They have lived way beyond their means, with a bad habit of stuffing every bill into a drawer.  Their solicitor knows the score and tries to help, but Mummie and Papa are compelled to maintain the illusion of wealth and society, so their irresponsible spending continues unchecked.  Even in the most intense and private situations, good behaviour rules:

When the last speechless hand-grip was completed, Papa, Mummie, and I were left in the hall, with empty glasses and the empty plates; funerals are hungry work. We exchanged cool, warning looks — which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others, the most ordinary in a choice of occupation?  (p. 113)

Good Behaviour landed Molly Keane firmly on my favorite authors list.  Her characterizations are classic examples of an author showing, not telling. At an early age Richard is “caught” reading poetry in a treehouse.  Richard and Hubert go to great lengths to be together alone.  Slowly, the reader comes to realize they are gay.  It’s brilliantly done.  She conveys emotion with similar skill.  When Aroon goes to a party alone and finds she’s been paired with an older, misfit of a man, her pain is palpable.  And yet there are also moments of delightful wit, such as Mummie’s visit with neighbors, when she finds the primary bathroom already in use.  Her host directs her:

‘You’ll have to try the downstairs. I’ll just turn out the cats. They love it on a wet day.’ I could imagine them there, crouched between the loo and the croquet mallets and the Wellington boots and the weed killer.  (p. 157)

My Virago Modern Classics collection includes several more books by Molly Keane (who also wrote under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell).  I can’t wait to discover more of her talent.

Review: The Crowded Street, by Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby was such an advanced, groundbreaking voice for women in the 1930s.  In The Crowded Street, her second novel and one of her most successful, Holtby gives us Muriel Hammond: smart but shy, unable to attract male attention and overly concerned about “doing the right thing” in the eyes of her parents.  Early on, Muriel’s academic ambitions are thwarted by the headmistress at school:

Then, with a kindliness that Muriel found consoling even though it sounded the death knell to her hopes, Mrs. Hancock explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn.  Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers, and professors (these latter being evidently a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’ (p. 29)

On leaving school, Muriel returns home out of some sense of obligation to her mother, who invests considerable time and effort in finding her a suitable match.  Muriel has feelings for Godfrey Neale, a local landowner, but he seems to always be just beyond her reach.  Muriel’s younger sister Connie, tired of the stifling home environment, strikes out on her own to work on a farm but her independent life is far from trouble-free.  As Muriel reaches her mid-twenties, popular opinion has it she will never marry.  She fears becoming like her spinster Aunt Beatrice, who paints a bleak picture:

‘But even more for your own sake, dear. You will marry, I am sure. Marriage is the — the crown and joy of woman’s life — what we were born for — to have a husband and children, and a little home of your own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But — it’s all right while you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance — and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who really wants you — and you hate to stay too long in a house in case somebody else should want to come — and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry.’ (p. 223)

Most stories from the early 20th century would tackle this problem Jane Austen style, with the perfect man appearing on the scene to rescue the young woman and offer her a life of security, if not happiness.  But Holtby has other ideas, ultimately giving Muriel the strength to forge her own path, one that is not exactly what her mother had in mind but is thankfully vastly different from Aunt Beatrice’s experience.  Between The Crowded Street and her masterpiece, South Riding, Holtby showed early twentieth century women a new path, with new options, and paved the way for social change.

Review: Hunt the Slipper, by Violet Trefusis

Nigel Benson enjoys life’s luxuries:  fine food & wine, antiquities, books, and of course women.  49 and still single, he lives with his sister in a beautiful country home.  One day he meets the much-younger Caroline Crome, wife of his good friend Anthony.  She treats him rudely, but sparks fly when they meet again in Paris a short time later.  Caroline is bored by her marriage, and she has already been unfaithful to Anthony, so an affair with Nigel seems a fait accompli.  Their travel itineraries conspire against them at first, and communicating by post leaves them both mopey and dissatisfied.  When they are together, Nigel is seized by jealousy of the younger men in Caroline’s life.  Even though she repeatedly professes her love for him, true happiness seems to always be just out of reach.  But Anthony is clearly none the wiser:

Everyone had noticed the improvement in Caroline. It was amazing how she had changed, and in such a short time, too!  All the things she used to set about with such ill grace, such as going to church, calling on the vicar’s wife, etc., she now accomplished with zeal and alacrity, Margaret was no longer scolded. Slaps were a thing of the past. She was charming to Anthony’s mother and had actually been seen studying a seed catalogue. Though he didn’t entirely ascribe this happy change to Nigel, Anthony was sure that his influence had counted for something. (p.119)

Eventually Nigel and Caroline tire of the constant deception and sneaking around, and decide they will break the news of their affair to Anthony.   Certain events require them to postpone this dramatic act, and it seems Nigel & Caroline will just learn to live with the situation.

But Violet Trefusis has other ideas, and in the novel’s last 30 pages takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride.  Up to this point I found Hunt the Slipper a pleasant read, but nothing really stood out.  The final twists and turns left me breathless:  will they stay together or won’t they?  The ending was emotional and cleverly done, packing an unexpected punch.

Review: Two Days in Aragon, by Molly Keane

Set in 1920 during the Troubles, Two Days in Aragon is a dramatic portrayal of the Irish at this point in history.  Anglo-Irish families were part of the privileged social class, loyal to the British crown and living in stately homes like Aragon.  They were set apart from their Irish Catholic servants, who had very different political views and a markedly different way of life.

The Foxes were one such Anglo-Irish family.  Mrs. Fox, a widow, lived at Aragon with her two daughters.  Sylvia’s life was caught up in tea parties, tennis, and pursuit of military men.  Her younger sister, Grania, “was a fat little blonde with pretty bones under her flesh; rather a slut, and inclined to wear party shoes with old tweeds.”  There was a fierce rivalry between the sisters, and seemingly little warmth in the family.

But the force behind Aragon’s greatness was its housekeeper, Nan O’Neill.  Strong, controlling, and sometimes cruel, she is fiercely devoted to Aragon.  But hers is more than a servant’s basic devotion to her master, and Nan has spent a lifetime trying to set herself apart from the rest of the Irish servant class.  Yet she’s not really part of the family, nor is she accepted by the Irish.  And she is appalled to discover a liaison between Grania and her son Foley.  Nan understands the social boundaries, perhaps more than anyone else.

Nan runs a tight ship and exudes professional decorum, but her dark side emerges when she cares for Miss Pidgie, a batty old aunt living with the Fox family.  Pidgie is a simple soul, comic and tremendously sad at the same time.  Her world is confined to Aragon.  She has an odd habit of collecting bird eggs from their nests, to give to imaginary figures she calls her “Diblins.”  She is poorly dressed, with painful shoes, but no one pays attention to her needs.  In fact, Nan derives sadistic pleasure from Pidgie’s hardships, and from meting out small “privileges” — a walk outdoors, or a bit of sweet with tea — on her own terms.

The central conflict in this novel involves the capture of a pair of British soldiers by some Irish mercenaries.  Sylvia is in love with one of the soldiers, but masks her fear by pressing on with her social commitments.  When Foley is implicated in the capture, Grania worries herself sick while Nan takes matters into her own hands.  Once again Nan’s inner strength prevails, and she takes a tremendous personal risk to do what she believes is right.

I loved Molly Keane’s writing, especially her ability to capture the essence of a character in just a few words.  Even a minor character like Frazer, the butler, came to life through phrases like this:  “Frazer hunched his shoulders like a sick crow, and stooped again to dirty tea-cups and crummy plates.”  As the conflict built, Keane deftly wove each character’s thread together in a way that showed their essence, even giving the heretofore shallow Sylvia a critical heroic role at the story’s climax.  This was my first Molly Keane novel, and I have many more on my shelves to look forward to.