1 February 2017

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

This was my first encounter with a novel written by Vita Sackville-West.  To come to this book during the depths of a Canadian winter, when reflection strikes often, was perfect timing.  The subject matter is all too familiar with themes of what if, expectation and duty.  While these topics are ones that just about everyone contemplates on a regular basis, I thrilled at the notion that at eighty-eight years of age a woman from the Victorian era sets the terms for living out the rest of her life according to her own wishes.  It begins with the death of her husband.

 Lord Slane, formerly the Viceroy of India, has died at the grand age of ninety-four.  The list of his accomplishments is a long one.  At the age of seventeen, Deborah (Lady Slane) dreamed of becoming a painter and fantasized about a life full of adventure.  During this fantasy she must shed her feminine image for that of a boy...which says a lot about the norm when it comes to a life of adventure.  Accidentally accepting a marriage proposal with a misread facial expression puts paid to a life of paintbrushes and canvas. 

While Lady Slane looks upon the body of her husband, her adult children make arrangements for her care without her knowledge, input or presence.  It's decided that she can move between their households for a period of a few months per stay.  A sentiment of martyrdom hangs in the air.

'Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make, Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive - an appendage.  It was assumed that she had not enough brain to be self-assertive.' 

But Lady Slane has other plans.  A lovely Georgian house in Hampstead, described as a Constable painting, caught her eye thirty years ago and if by chance it's available, she'll take it.  I loved the way Sackville-West reveals the tube stops as Lady Slane rides the train to Hampstead and reminisces about her husband.  Once the details are taken care of, the move is made.  Of course, this decision also affects Genoux, a wonderful French housemaid to Lady Slane for over sixty years.  The description of one of her traits concerning undergarments is fantastic.

'Here Lady Slane's dreamy reminiscences were cut short as Genoux came in, rustling like a snake in dry leaves, creaking like a saddle, for, until May was out, Genoux would not abandon the layers of brown paper that reinforced her corset and her combinations against the English climate.'

Finally able to spend her days sitting by the warmth of the garden wall as she listens to the bees fly around the pear trees, Lady Slane sees this time as a reprieve before death.  But there's another unexpected chapter still to play out.  Mr FitzGeorge, who collects art pieces like a magpie, has kept abreast of Lady Slane's state of affairs while keeping his distance.  He's a man from her past.   

As far as the plot is concerned, that's all you're getting from me.

I so enjoy the extra pleasure of noting street names, companies, and clubs while reading novels set in London.  Learning about the history or location of places mentioned will undoubtedly be beneficial should they pop up again in another book, and you never know when they'll inspire a stop during a trip overseas.  This morning I looked up Mudie's book subscriptions, Boodles (where Kay Holland and Mr FitzGeorge met regularly for lunch), and Bernard Street, where Mr FitzGeorge lived.  It turns out to be the street bordering Russell Square tube station and the Brunswick Centre.  A place I've explored many times but apparently while too absorbed in the surroundings to notice street names.

This is a wonderful story told from the perspective of a woman of privilege.  While it's been described as a feminist novel, and in some respects that is true, I can appreciate that men also experience unrealized dreams for reasons beyond their control.

A dream of moving to a red-brick Georgian in Hampstead during my senior years is going to carry me through an afternoon of domestic duties.  I don't even have the benefit of Genoux!

Arum and Tulips by Vanessa Bell

11 comments:

  1. Your experience of visiting London through this book is so lovely. As for me, I was reading a mystery set in Boston a little while ago and howling that no, you CAN'T see the brownstones of Back Bay from the JFK Bridge!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ouch! I wonder why the author didn't scope out the area before setting a scene like that? Little things like that can turn off an eagle-eyed reader. And don't get me started on authors writing a 'British' novel with sidewalks, flashlights and cookies....

      Delete
  2. It makes me want to start scheming myself!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've subscribed again to your blog as my earlier application did not seem to work.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This sounds wonderful and I'm adding it to my list. I read The Edwardians recently and I loved it, so I need to read more of Vita Sackville-West.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Edwardians is languishing on my shelves so I'm very glad to hear it gets a thumbs up from you. That will be my next Sackville-West read.

      Delete
  5. You've convinced me to seek this book out and add it to my TBR pile! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good! That's my job done then. Have a lovely day, Jennifer!

      Delete
  6. Will there be room for a lodger?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely! No rent payments, just baking.

      Delete