17 October 2019

The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West

This novel from 1953 was unknown to me, but the Oxfam bookshop in Bloomsbury was closing in ten minutes which meant no dithering.  Without a blurb to be found, I opened the book and caught the description of a luncheon (never just lunch) menu featuring curried eggs and a macedoine of fruit.  Oh yes, this will definitely be worth the £3 noted on the first page.

The opening scenes of The Easter Party centre around two households in very different economic circumstances.  Sackville-West brilliantly provides every domestic detail with a tone that equals one of those black and white Sunday afternoon movies that are perfect on a rainy day.  And then the author begins to drop hints....strife in a marriage, a secret, criminality, and an impending tragedy.  If you're in the mood for a bit of melodrama with what feels like a late 1940s backdrop you won't be disappointed.

Rose Mortibois invites her sister's family to Anstey, her husband's ancestral home in the English countryside.  Sir Walter Mortibois, QC is very successful, dedicating nearly all of his waking hours to his office and the courts.  At first glance it would seem that Rose leads the life of a socialite but when Walter leaves for work she wanders the house rearranging objects on the tables.  She is bored.

Rose's sister Lucy lives with her husband, an unsuccessful stockbroker, in a modest home, anxiously awaiting their son's return from four years in the Colonial Service.  The married couple are the picture of devotion, referring to each other as 'Pudding', although Lucy frets over how to tell Dick it might sound a bit common in the setting of a country house.  There are glaring differences in the lives these sisters lead solely down to the earning power of each woman's husband.  Sackville-West makes a point of showing the reader that Sir Walter reads The Times while Dick's paper of choice is the Daily Mail.

Another guest invited to Anstey is the effervescent and notorious Lady Juliet Quarles.   When Walter finds out about the additional guest he adds, with a rare bit of humour.....

'Oh, I adore her,' he said lightly.  'Is her heart broken at the moment, or is it intact, or has it found a new occupation?  If so, will she want to bring the occupation with her?  In any case, if Juliet is coming remember to order some more brandy.'

To even out the adult guests for the Bank Holiday weekend, Rose rings her brother-in-law, Gilbert.  He's described as a 'brain specialist', but Rose is quick to put her sister at ease by mentioning that he's very easy going.  My mind did wander to the notion that in today's world it would be nigh on impossible to find a psychiatrist and a QC with a calendar free of appointments for three days.  I digress.

Over the course of the weekend layers are peeled away to reveal the private thoughts, and sometimes anguish, of each guest.  One of the saddest situations being that of Rose, who at only forty-five is desperately lonely in her marriage.  Walter was upfront when he proposed, telling Rose their marriage would be in name only.  As a very young woman wanting more than village life the offer was a way of changing her circumstance, but her life has been devoid of intimacy.  Rose realizes that Walter's steely nature is a weakness rather than a strength and admits to Gilbert....'I wish also that he could have suffered.'  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that will change lives.

I am so glad to have found this book.  At times it is over the top but the overall picture of another time balances out the melodrama.  The snobby butler, cars on gravel paths, straight razors and shaving soap, and I would love to know if Lady Quarles was drawn from someone in Vita Sackville-West's sphere of acquaintances.  She's quite wild!  The author's love of dogs is certainly apparent given the important part Svend the Alsatian plays in the story.

The Edwardians has been languishing on my shelves for years but The Easter Party has given me the push to read it sooner rather than later.

Portrait of Mrs Herbert Spencer by Joseph Kleitsch

9 October 2019

Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett

My visit to Charleston Farmhouse in September was originally planned as a way to learn more about Virginia Woolf.  But once you cross the threshold of a home, see the rooms and spaces in which its occupants went about daily life,  they quickly become more than a reference in ink.  Who better to throw open the curtains on life at Charleston than the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant?  Neither glowing romp about an idyllic life in the Sussex countryside or a dreary moan, Deceived with Kindness is the touching account of a woman hoping to reconcile the vulnerabilities of her childhood with the hindsight of adulthood.

'As I thought about my childhood and adolescence I began to realise that the past may be either fruitful or a burden; that the present, if not lived to the full, may turn the past into a threatening serpent; and that relationships that were not full explored at the time can become dark shapes, in the shadow of which we do not care to linger.'

Steering purposefully away from convention,  this circle of friends had homosexual relationships, lovers and mistresses outside of marriage, and embraced free thinking.  Yet there was a surprising amount of repressed behaviour, largely due to their Victorian upbringing.   Images of Vanessa, Duncan, Lytton, Virginia and Leonard relaxing on various lawns paint a picture of a carefree existence but there were several emotional dynamics at play.  Vanessa very much wanted to have a child with Duncan, who was in a relationship with David Garnett.  Shortly after beginning a sexual relationship with Vanessa, she became pregnant with Angelica.   Clive and Vanessa's marriage had been floundering for many years so his time at Charleston was usually limited to weekends.  He left the bulk of Angelica's upbringing to Vanessa.   Duncan also remained in the background when it came to any sort of parenting.  Angelica's observation is heartbreaking....

   'Although Vanessa comforted herself with the pretence that I had two fathers, in reality - emotional reality, that is - I had none.'

Brighter moments of Angelica's life included her two older brothers, Julian and Quentin, but they spent much of their time away at school.  Knowing that Virginia railed against the lack of education for girls, I was surprised to discover that Vanessa had a completely opposing viewpoint.  She would have been happy for her children to learn in an informal arrangement, while at home surrounded by nature.

Travelling back and forth between Firle and London there are wonderful descriptions of life inside 46 Gordon Square, where Vanessa had rooms on the upper floor.

'I sat on the chequered coconut matting, rough and uneasy to my bottom, sheltered from the heat by Nessa's knees, while her hands would take from the mantelpiece, and bring down to my level, the dried oranges and lemons used for darning socks.'

The property at Gordon Square was transferred to Maynard Keynes after Vanessa and Virginia had both married and went to live elsewhere.  While visiting, and as a special treat, Angelica was allowed to take her bath in Keynes' large tub.   She remembers him tossing sponges at her from a distance while impeccably turned out in expensive suits.

Once during a visit to Tavistock Square, Virginia brought out rolls of paper she had bought in New Oxford Street, along with pins and paste, to make a doll resembling Ottoline Morrell.  The image of the doll produced hoots of laughter from Virginia.  Another wonderful anecdote involves Angelica and her aunt throwing cubes of sugar from the window to horses waiting patiently below.  In contrast, visits to Clive's parents' home were more refined....

   'The house was a kind of petrified zoo.  In the library a lamp stood on a tripod of hooves, once those of a deer, and on the writing-table, furnished with the thickest of inlaid writing-papers was an ink-well made from another, larger hoof, perhaps that of the moose in the hall, king of all these relics.'

Christmas was usually celebrated with Clive's family in Wiltshire.  A driver would collect them at the station and then on to the Bell's grand home where plates of cucumber sandwiches would be waiting.

There is much to be gleaned from Angelica's memoir.  Victorian social mores melting into a less strident book of rules, the inequality of acknowledgement between male and female artists, reading about Virginia Woolf through the eyes of a child and finding so much humour,  a changing countryside, once fairly tranquil now blighted by noise from planes and cars.  Angelica also dissects her feelings about her marriage and divorce from David Garnett.  And while some of her descriptions of his behaviour are not complimentary she acknowledges they are her point of view and perhaps unfair given that Garnett could not speak for himself.

Angelica Garnett's childhood, spent in the company of the Bloomsbury Group was extraordinary.  Once she was old enough to look back at certain situations from her childhood, she became ever more depressed.  Putting pen to paper as a way to tease out her feelings and understand her upbringing but the process took several years.  Some readers have found this book to be harsh at times and riddled with snobbery.  To the contrary, I found Angelica's sincere thoughts and her apology for misunderstanding the actions and/or intentions of Vanessa, Duncan and Clive to be quite moving.

Deceived with Kindness is my read of the year.  It's early October but I don't think there's another book on the horizon that could topple it.

Angelica with her aunt, Virginia Woolf
(Ramsay & Muspratt - 1932)