28 September 2020

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

 A book that was bought simply because it's mentioned often enough on literary podcasts and book blogs to make me curious.  It's not that I've been consciously avoiding West's work but for some reason her books simply haven't piqued my curiousity enough to send me running for a copy.   During my last visit to a second-hand shop it was on the shelf so this is a self-imposed homework assignment to find out just what is I've been missing.

Set during the Edwardian era, the story begins with Papa accepting yet another helping hand from a kind benefactor.  This time it's Mr Murpurgo offering him the job of editing a small suburban newspaper.  Papa speaks about his new position with a sneer while his wife props him up by gently agreeing that the job is beneath him.  But, as it turns out, the family's rocky economic situation is down to his gambling and risky stock ventures.  

Told from the viewpoint of Rose, the second born of the Aubreys four children, her father means the world to her despite his shortcomings.  As an innocent child she's been shielded from the details of her father's indulgence and negligence.  Her parents, Piers and Clare, met in Ceylon and married in South Africa where all four children were born, but constant financial trouble has kept them on the move.  From South Africa to Edinburgh and now London.

My early thoughts on Rose's Papa were fairly neutral until her mother visits a home they had sublet to another family.  The expensive furniture inherited from Mamma's Aunt Clara is missing.  Rose offers to run and notify the police but after a quick word with a neighbour, Mamma gently protects Rose from the truth.  Papa has sold it knowing how much it meant to Clare.  It was also the last bit of their possessions with any sort of connection to an elegant lifestyle.  My neutral view of Papa ended then and there and I chose a sweary word to describe him in my notebook.

Through her childhood memories and inexperienced understanding of the world, Rose describes her family's world of genteel poverty.  Her mother hides the hole in her veil with a strategically placed knot, clothes are worn until they're nearly falling apart and meals are simple and spare.  But great importance is placed on knowing the names of artists, speaking French and above all to play the piano and violin with great skill.  The family has an immense love for each other that transcends the need for niceties.  It's the simple pleasures that hold the dearest memories.  Rose's adult self bemoans the fact that children today (1956) have missed out on the beauty of gaslight....

'We three went down the steep stairs to the kitchen and I stood on the chair and lit the gas.  It was more poetic than electric light, and I am sorry that so many children of today never see it.  Over the gas-jet, inside the inverted glass bell, was a thing called an incandescent mantle, which, when you delicately turned on the tap in the gas-bracket and held a lit match over it, glimmered with a pale unsteady whiteness , like a little man risen from the dead.....' 

Speaking of raising from the dead, Rose and her mother visit Constance and her daughter Rosamund,  relations living in a down at heel area of London.  Within minutes of entering the house objects start flying from the shelves and through the window.  The scene struck me as over the top and unbelievable but the way the young girls accepted such eerie goings-on and went about cuddling Rosamund's rabbits felt authentic.  If their mothers hadn't run out of the house screaming with fright then everything must be okay.  Rose was more shocked by the fact they had relations too poor to have any hired help.  Even in their state of constant penury the Aubreys have their beloved Kate to run the kitchen and help with the cleaning.

My attitude towards Piers Aubrey shifted slightly when he boldly comes to the aid of a woman unfairly sentenced to hang for a murder.  Although, his eldest daughter realizes he was willing to be imprisoned for exposing the judge for impartiality.  Honourable perhaps but not when justice would come at the expense of his own family.  I won't say anymore about that storyline but considering The Fountain Overflows is loosely based on West's own family I need to find out whether this association with a murder trial is fact or fiction.

 I very much enjoyed this book, the only niggle being that it could have been edited down by a handful of pages.  But just when my interest waivered slightly an incident would develop that reeled me back in.  My favourite moment was in the form of a twist coming right at the end.  There were many times when I wanted to shake Clare Aubrey for not only accepting her husband's behaviour to the detriment of the family but glorifying him to the children.  In actual fact, Mamma's eyes were opened more than I gave her credit for.

A fascinating first-hand look at life within an Edwardian family with its hardships and joys.  At times loving and charming there are also moments of prejudice and cruelty.  While trying to find a piece of artwork to accompany this post there were oh so many that fall under the heading of 'twee'.  They didn't feel appropriate here.  One last note, I found it interesting that West would write a thinly-veiled story of her family's hardships but reject her son for doing the same thing with his book Heritage.  Oh the world of writers!

Dame Rebecca West
(1892 - 1983)

11 September 2020

Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

 I was thrilled to learn that Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.   With less than a handful of pages to read before finishing I wholeheartedly agreed with the panel's decision.  Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light was a brilliant contender but O'Farrell's characters are now firmly rooted in my reading memory.  And she reduced me to tears not once (as many have been) but twice.

The story begins with Hamnet coming down the stairs, as many children will do, by leaping over the last few rungs.  

   'It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light.  The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow set into the plaster.'

Hamnet's twin sister lies in bed upstairs, feverish with lumps forming on her neck.  In searching for someone to tell, he's sidetracked by things that catch his eye while going from room to room.  It's a clever device to paint a picture of his surroundings.  His mother is actually a mile away tending to her bees.  Hamnet has been warned to steer clear of his grandfather but he's not sure why.  

The villagers come to the house and ask for his mother when they need a cure for one ailment or another.  This doesn't make her very popular with the doctor.  Agnes knows that tying a toad to someone's belly won't be as effective as her herbs and tinctures but she also understands the need to hide her disapproval.  Hamnet's father is away in London.  The reader is aware that he's none other than the playwright William Shakespeare, but O'Farrell's focus is Agnes and her story.

Agnes has a level of intuition that lands her with a reputation for being something of a witch.  She meets the eye of men while talking to them and carries a kestrel on her arm.  An instant attraction between Will and Agnes while tutoring her step-siblings causes friction between both families, largely due to unscrupulous business dealings in the past.

So what is it that makes this book stand out from others on the shelf?  An obvious place to start is the plague.  Watching for signs of fever, being in quarantine, restrictions on travel or escape to less populated places are relevant and all too familiar today.  Also, during this pandemic I've become a fan of nature writing and podcasts as a way of diluting so much bad news.  O'Farrell's description of bees in skeps and rolling meadows, drying fruit, the earthy feeling of walking on composted leaves in the forest or pressing lavender between your palms are sublime.   Beauty contrasting with grief.  And the writing is so lyrical you'll find yourself going over lines twice....

'The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes's cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.'

A friend mentioned going to the bookstore the other day so I recommended Hamnet & Judith.  When I mentioned the connection with Shakespeare there was a slight change in her level of interest.  We have our very own Stratford here in Ontario but depending where your tastes lie it's either relevant for the playwright and the wonderful theatre there, or for being Justin Bieber's hometown.  I wonder if our somewhat weaker connection to Shakespeare is why the publisher felt the need to change the title?  

 In any case, Hamnet & Judith is a brilliant read.   My suggestion is that you read it before it's discussed to death on radio programs and articles and too many details are revealed.  I loved it....and the twenty-something young lady ringing up my purchase at the bookstore swooned while telling me she loved it too.  Just buy it. 

Title and artist unknown