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Friday, October 7, 2011

Slightly below the Whipple line

I have been on trains a lot recently, and apart from explorations with my new iphone (how did I not realise that I needed one before?), I have mostly been reading The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. I liked it. It was fun. It was good company. That said, a corner of my soul was a bit disappointed. The reasons are firstly that I loved loved loved Someone at a Distance, and so I had extremely high expectations. Secondly, I think that in reading this book, I have finally understood what Carmen Calil meant by “below the Whipple line”. It has plenty of good features. Like all Persephones, it is well-written. The problem that it is just not a satisfactory novel.

Let’s start with the good bits. The Priory is Saunby Priory, which we are given to believe is somewhere in the Midlands. Its days as a priory are well over by the opening of the novel and it has been, for generations in the hands of the Marwood family, who live there. Its owner is Major Marwood, and because he cannot afford to fix everything, he chooses to fix nothing. Basically, it is going to rack and ruin. The novel follows the travails of Major Marwood, his family and others who know them. All of the characters are in some way linked to the Priory itself.

The emphasis of the novel shifts around like a searchlight in a forest. For the first few chapters, the focus is very much on Anthea, the big-boned, middle-aged lady whom Major Marwood chooses for his second wife. He hopes for administrative assistance rather than romance and Anthea’s struggles to get it right and to be loved are touching and convincing. From Anthea, the spotlight switches to a below-stairs love triangle between two of the Priory’s maids and Major Marwood’s most ridiculous extravagance: Thornton, his paid, live-in cricketer. In its final sequence, the stage is dominated by Major Marwood’s two daughters, Christine and Penelope, and in particular by Christine.

If the novel has a heroine, then it is Christine. Christine is the person who realises and gives voice to the fact that they are all inextricably linked to the house, but also that the house, and its lack of usefulness is the problem. Not only is it too big to house a clutch of unproductive plonkers who can’t afford it. It is not what it was meant for. It was built to house a community, and it has been diverted from its purpose, to everybody’s detriment.

History looms large but subtly over this novel. It is set in the late 1930s, and with varying levels of consciousness, all of these characters are under the shadow of the coming war. The resolution of the novel (which is an ecstatically, nay, ludicrously happy one), coincides with the Munich crisis. The novel ends with its characters, like almost everyone else in Britain at the time, believing that war had been averted. As readers, we know different. Saunby is exactly the sort of house that was either sold or given to the National Trust after the war and this provides an interesting side conceit to the whole thing.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, in order to resolve the seemingly intractable problems of the characters, Whipple sacrifices convincingness. It just isn’t credible that the novel would be resolved as it is. The characters change their positions like weather vanes. Those who have rebelled, retract their rebellions. Walls that have been built are knocked down. Themes which have been carefully developed are dropped like stones. It reads like it was finished in a desperate hurry.

One of the main themes of the novel is how people deal with infidelity. This is a theme shared with Someone at a Distance, and it is one which Whipple takes seriously and does well. In The Priory, responses to infidelity are dealt with together with parenting. Some characters are pretty much neglected. Others are stifled with care and love and attention. Others are stifled with material comforts by their parents, and as a result are profoundly unhappy. They are unable to do anything or be anyone because they, even in adulthood, are so dependant on their parents. This theme was powerfully developed throughout the novel, but when it came to the ending, Dorothy Whipple pretty much ignores it. She rides roughshod over all of the well constructed themes that she has worked through the narrative.

I am tempted to sign myself: Disappointed, of London town.

There are other opinions to be found at My Porch and A Book A Week.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mostly being modern and romantic

I have discovered this week, just as I am closing the back cover on Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns, that she has now published another book – this time on Virginia Woolf. It is better to come to something a little late than not at all. Romantic Moderns is a book which I have had for yonks, but which I have enjoyed eating slowly and out-of-order. It is as broad as it is long, and being a history of the English imagination in the 1930s and 1940s, it is given to such staggered consumption.

The central thesis is that the English were not, as previously believed, excluded from modernism. The orthodox view is that artistically and imaginatively, the English were and are a pastorally minded lot, a nation of romantics whose art is figurative and whose literature is linear. The struggles of artistic abstraction and surrealism to take off here are often called as witnesses to this phenomenon.

For what it is worth, I have never thought that it is quite right. There isn’t a line with modernists on one side and traditionalists on the other. What Harris does is examine this issue from all sorts of angles including art, literature, food, church and village. She says again and again that English artists and writers of this period were modernists whose explorations borrowed from and were informed by the more traditional past. They were not making the world afresh; their modernism had to do with re-interpretation.

She focuses on a group of well-chosen “Romantic Moderns” who individually and collectively illustrate her point – such as John Piper, Virginia Woolf and Bill Brandt. The passage in which she talks about the paintings in Berwick Church by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell is excellent and took me right back to that wonderful church (discussed on this blog back in January).

It would be an impossible task to catalogue all of the “Romantic Moderns” of the period, but one of the best things about this book is that it feels like it is the tip of the iceberg.

The discussion of the ungodly Bloomsbury bunch using a church for a gallery, and being used themselves as the organs of religious expression put me in mind of Rupert Lee, an artist of the same period (and a friend of Bell and Grant), who has featured on this blog before. Lee, who was 10 years the president of the avant-garde London Group of Artists, and who was at the forefront of British surrealism, also produced religious art, which I discovered myself at St Mary the Less in Cambridge and at the nearby Foxton Parish Church. He was not religious himself, but this art formed a part of his cultural world. His modernism was complex and there was more than one colour in his pallet.

The same can be said of the English writer, Barbara Comyns whose writing borrows from the pastoral and the traditional but seems to write it afresh with a different eye and a different voice. Her writing has been called English magical realism, by which I think is meant that it is not full blown magical realism, but it feels magic all the same.

I particularly thought of Comyns when reading Harris’ chapter on village life. Almost all of Comyns’ adult life was lived in cities, but her writing was heavily influenced by her childhood in the Warwickshire village of Bidford-on-Avon. She focuses on village life to an extent which was common amongst writers and artists of the period, and she plainly felt that it was not an unviable mode of living, killed off by modernism. That having been said, she was not a proselytiser. Much of her work, especially the recently re-published Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead emphasises that the smallest communities can be the cruellest.

The division between the city and the country, the modern world and the old one was not and is not straight forward, and long may it continue.