The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling (1947 Club)

This was quite a lucky find. I decided to scan the bookcase of ‘vintage’ Penguins in my local Oxfam bookshop for titles that looked as if they might have been first published in 1947, and pulled this from the middle of a shelf; the relevant date is given on the back cover. My edition is a Penguin Modern Classic from 1977, but the title also exists as an NYRB Classic.

Trilling was a celebrated critic, and this was his only novel. I think I can see why that is so; unfortunately I don’t think that The Middle of the Journey is very good. It took me quite a long time to read, while not being so bad that I decided to leave it unfinished.

The main character is John Laskell, a middle aged American man who, in order to recuperate from a bout of scarlet fever, travels to the country to stay with friends, Arthur and Nancy Croom. He travels some of the way by train with a friend, Gifford Maxim, who is known to have recently betrayed his Party (which it is later made clear is indeed the Communist party.) Laskell found it uncomfortable to travel with Maxim, who:

…had chosen the last car for them, and then the last seat in this last car, because he wanted – it was part of his delusion – to lessen the chance of being approached and attacked from behind.

And this precipitates Laskell’s own anxieties:

No, the car would not be cut off, it went through to Hartford and beyond. Laskell was reassured not only by the answer but by the conductor’s friendliness and by his seeming to think that the question was a perfectly reasonable one. After all, cars were sometimes cut off.

Perhaps his own significant social privilege underlines the ease with which he receives reassurance from officials:

…he appeared to be surely a person for whom the world was a place to be familiarly at home in, for whom trains were run and timetables kept accurate, for whom illness was not usual but who, having once been ill, recovered as fast and as simply as possible, and then, as a most natural thing, travelled to spend a month in the country with friends.

Although Laskell has travelled to visit the Crooms, and his greeting by them is described with unpretentious realism, it is not them, the ‘summer people’, with whom he is staying; he is to rent a room from the Folgers, permanent residents who live nearby. This room seems to have almost hospital-like cleanliness and brightness:

The room was large and light. On one side it faced into a full spreading tree and on the other side towards the fields and hills. The furniture was the old commonplace yellow of forty or fifty years before, giving off a smell of wood and varnish. There was a washstand with a pitcher and bowl and slop jar, and there was a dresser and a table, both covered with clean white linen tidies edged with tatting. The big bed was of brass.

Mrs Folger is definitely an intriguing character:

She appeared to consider herself at a disadvantage with these three people, city people[….] but she controlled these emotions and made herself a pleasant hostess under difficulties. She made a good deal of verbal fuss about her being in an apron to receive them, and about the flour that had got into the cracks of her hands and under her nails. But at the same time she was aware that these were things that gave her standing with her visitors.

While he is accustoming himself to the Folgers’ house, Laskell ruminates on something that has already caused conflict between himself and the Crooms – that they are visibly uneasy with the notion of death, so much so that they cannot bring themselves to discuss the fact that Laskell could have died from his recent illness, or the earlier death of an intimate friend of his.

I think that the novel started to fall apart for me as early as Chapter 2: it consists of an account of Laskell’s recent past, for the most part an account of his illness. Perhaps it is a sign of his privilege that Laskell has hired two nurses to attend him in a (his own?) private apartment during the illness; one during the day, and one during the night.

The night nurse is a Miss Paine, who introduces herself to Laskell by punning on her own name, and who is kindly and ‘craggy, […] thin and angular and vaguely middle-aged, and her meagre dull hair was a little disordered in the grey, growing light.’

The day nurse is a Miss Debry, who ‘as Laskell began to understand, was beautiful. The understanding was late in coming. Much before it came had come the understanding that Miss Debry was unendurable.’ Of washing him at the end of her shift, ‘She always wanted Laskell to declare his assent to every detail of the routine. He had no wish to assent, but he knew that she would insist.’ Does this indicate a dislike of female authority on the part of Laskell or the author?

It seems to me that these two women are ciphers rather than characters. Their personalities and appearances are too perfectly opposed, and since nursing is a stereotypically female occupation. I wonder if these two characters were intended to stand for two aspects of Woman rather than to represent two actual women; thus the realism starts to fail.

I must say that on flicking through this book to try to pick out quotes, that I have missed or misremembered several things and probably need to read it again in order to critique it properly.

However, I think there is one major failure of storytelling: the climax of the novel is tragic, but the condition making that tragedy possible is revealed to the reader so soon before the event that I, who rarely find stories to be predictable, was able to tell what was going to happen several pages before it did. Though some of Laskell’s actions do contribute to the way in which that event came about in an unforeseen way, and it is something for which he bears a considerable sense of guilt.

Gifford Maxim (who is awkwardly named; I was as likely to think he was called Maxim Gifford) eventually visits the Crooms. I think one needs to read closely to see the relevance of many of his utterances to the nature of communism, and probably more closely than I did,  but I think this speech, made while visiting Kermit Simpson, a mutual friend and Maxim’s editor (and who is very rich and very congenial), captures the essence of his position:

‘Is it not strange,’ he said, ‘do you not find it strange that as we become more sensitive to the sufferings of mankind, we become more and more cruel? The more we think of the human body and the human mind as being able to suffer, and the sorrier we feel for that, and the more we plan to prevent suffering, the more we are drawn to inflict suffering. The more tortures we think up. The more people we believe deserve to be tortured. The more we think that people can be ruled by fear of suffering. We have become our brother’s keeper – and we will keep him in fear, we will keep him in concentration camps, we will keep him in the grave.’

This novel contains nearly faultless prose and discusses many ideas (that I didn’t cover here), but in addition to poor storytelling, I realised a few days after I finished reading that few of the characters had made any significant impression on me.

A Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden (1947 Club)

My copy of this novel is one of a few childhood books that had come down from my parents’ loft several years ago; I kept it because I am still interested in Godden’s writing. When Virago reissued a number of Godden’s works in 2013, I heard a discussion on the radio where someone said that Godden’s novels were often set in enclosed communities and that her children’s novels about  dolls’ houses were an example of this. It is pleasing to think that there is a thematic connection between a novel such as this and one such as Black Narcissus.

The novel concerns a family of dolls including Tottie Plantaganet, a Dutch doll (“Dutch dolls are scarce now, but Tottie was made a long time ago when they were plentiful[.]”) and the children Emily and Charlotte Dane, in whose nursery she lives; she had previously lived with the children’s great-grandmother and great-great aunt. The children acquired the other members of the family in various ways: Mrs Plantaganet was once part of a Christmas cracker.

Mrs Plantaganet was not quite right in the head. There was something in her head that rattled[….] She was altogether gay and light, being made of cheap celluloid, but, all the same, nicely moulded and joined and painted.

An element of unease is introduced to the story when Mr Plantaganet’s history is recounted. The reader is warned that:

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost.

Mr Plantaganet had been stripped, drawn on and chewed, and left in the bottom of a toy cupboard for an intolerably long time before being rescued and carefully restored by the Dane children.

He could still not quite believe he was Mr Plantaganet. He was still easily made afraid, afraid of being hurt or abused again. Really you might have thought that Tottie was the father and he was the child; but there are real fathers like that.

This seems to me as good a description of the aftereffects of trauma as one might expect to find in a book for young children.

Tottie has a solidity of character derived from the wood of which she is made:

Tottie was made of wood and it was good wood. She liked to think sometimes of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves every spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind.

Her woody nature is something that Tottie often contemplates when she needs to reassure herself.

The dolls live in a pair of shoeboxes, easily knocked over and draughty in the winter. Dolls’ houses are hard to come by, but Tottie remembers the house that she once lived in, when she was looked after by the present children’s great-grandmother. When a relation dies, the house is found in an attic and sent to the children. It is in a poor state: “the blue tin stove was rusty and so was the bath, the mangle was stuck, some of the kitchen chairs were broken and the nicked-round blankets were grey with mildew.”

The children receive a sampler along with the house. I liked this passage of subtle feminism from Tottie:

‘…[S]ometimes, most times, the stitches are very fine indeed. Do you remember, in The Tailor of Gloucester,’ asked Tottie, ‘when it says “the stitches were so small — so small, that they could only have been made by mice”? Well, the stitches in samplers look like that, but they were not made by mice,’ said Tottie. ‘They were made by little girls; and hours and hours of stitching went into them. […] I feel glad that little girls do not have to make them now,’ said Tottie.

The house is restored with care by the children, and the Plantaganets move in. But once they are content, the children are sent a previous inhabitant of the house – a vain, snobbish doll called Marchpane who is excessively proud of the fine materials from which she is made. The eldest Dane child decides that the Plantaganets are to be Marchpane’s servants, with the exception of Apple, Tottie’s brother-doll.

When Marchpane reveals that she does not like being played with:

‘You are not a doll,’ Mr Plantaganet cried; he had forgotten to be frightened. ‘You are a thing.’

It is only after Marchpane’s inattention to Apple causes a tragedy to occur that Emily decides to send her to a museum, where she is happy to be admired and not played with. The Plantaganet family return to the house to live much as they did before Marchpane’s arrival, albeit lacking perhaps the most loved one among them.

I enjoyed re-reading this novel much more than I expected I would: there is a strong moral message about not being dazzled by finery and the dignity of good, solid materials like wood; and there is melancholy and and an element of terror as well as some sugary pleasantness.  I also enjoyed the insight into children’s culture in the post-war era, where it seems that toys were as likely to be repaired as discarded and where several generations of the same family may have played with them; where, therefore, toys would have been less ephemeral and subject to fashion than they often are now.

After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1938 Club)

I am not going to be able to do this book justice. The introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition quotes Warner herself:

[… [A] parable if you like the word, or an allegory … of the political chemistry of the Spanish war, with the Don Juan […] developing as the Fascist of the piece.

I know woefully little about the Spanish Civil War, despite having read Anthony Beevor’s history thereof: I promptly forgot the contents. So I am not going to be able to discuss that aspect of the novel, arguably the most important.

I also found the plot very difficult to follow once past the very beginning: there are many characters and many plot threads. But Warner’s prose is as clear and precise as always, and conveys such a wonderful sense of place, that I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

It begins:

The death–or rather, the disappearance–of Don Juan de Tenorio took place in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century. It happened under curious circumstances. Don Juan, a renowned libertine, was paying court to Doña Ana de San Bolso y Mexia, a young lady who was already promised in marriage elsewhere. (She was motherless, and only child and a considerable heiress.) Her father, a retired Army man, had expressed his unequivocal disapproval of Don Juan, Doña Ana too averred most steadfastly that his advances were odious to her.

It is here that I think the allegorical tone is established: it is clear that the narrator is speaking some time after the events took place, and yet deliberately archaic language is employed. The narrator does not place us immediately in the middle of the action but instead hints at what will happen later in the story: the concept of the narrative present is thoroughly disrupted.

We learn that, as an indirect consequence of Don Juan’s attempting to “make love” to Doña Ana, his manservant Leporello reports that at supper:

[T]he floor opened, devils appeared, and Don Juan was dragged down into the pit.

Doña Ana decides that she must inform Don Juan’s parents of this happening, and that there must be “masses to be said for the repose of his soul.” And so she, her betrothed and Leporello embark on a journey to the estate of Don Saturno, the father of Don Juan. According to Leporello:

There indeed was a rural paradise. Purling streams, linen bleaching on the green meadows like a flock of swans, majestic groves of fine timber, three mills, no less, a fine modern church and presbytery, erected by Don Saturno’s great-great-grandfather, neat cottages, sheep fat as maggots, smooth pigs, splendid poultry, oliveyards, vineyards, silk-worms, shepherdesses […]

Here the description moves from the specific and the generic-described-unusually, back to the generic idea of a rural paradise, as if there was such an overwhelming number of things to describe that the speaker grew bored.

The village in actuality is not as Leporello had described; “it was pretty much as Ottavio had expected it to be.” The cupola of the church:

…had slipped awry, like an old woman’s head-dress. Between the church and the castle stranggled the village, an array of lime-washed hovels. The olive-trees in their cultivated earth looked like the spots on a leopard’s skin, the vineyards were few and poor.”

I enjoyed the character of Doña Pilar, apparently a maidservant or companion of Doña Ana (it is not made entirely clear): for most of the novel she is embroidering

a petticoat against the time when Doña Ana should consent to put off her mourning attire, a sprig design of grey pansies shaded with silver and black. […] These light sprigs were monotonous to perform, and the result, to her eyes, looked insignificant. French taste.

The monotony of this task is revisited at several points throughout the novel, and in the end Doña Ana wishes to wear the petticoat even though the embroidery is not finished. I think this is a good illustration of the Marxist concept of alienated labour, one with which Warner (who was a communist) would have been familiar: in the end, Doña Pilar does not even get the satisfaction of seeing the completion of her hard work.

Another favourite character was Celestina, who aspires to become a nun but who is not averse to a certain amount of strategic dishonesty towards this aim:

Before she reached the mill she stopped, wrapped up the money in a dock-leaf so that it should not clink, and slipped the clammy packet between her breasts. With such a prayer going on, it would be silly to waste money on a mass.

Later, her ambitions are described in more detail, and they are thoroughly worldly:

Slow and cold and inarticulate, like some sluggish water her ambition percolated towards the convent. […] There would be the large clean rooms and the smell of beeswax and the sun defeated behind shuttered windows; and there no robbers would come, and no suitors, and no beggars; and there would be no scrubbing and no trudging, for lay-sisters would see to that[.]

Eventually Celestina does bury enough money beneath the floorboards to escape from her father and his obsession with his ailing silkworms.

I have left much out here, but in revisiting the parts of the novel that I remembered well, it is now clear to me why I enjoyed it despite not comprehending it fully: the prose is richly descriptive, full of sensory information and surprising imagery: enough to sustain interest in the moment. I think I would profit from rereading it in the near future.

The Abbey Girls Play Up, by E. J. Oxenham (1938 Club)

This is one of the novels of the Abbey School series. I’ve owned the book for several years, having bought it when pursuing an interest in the girls’ school story genre, but I’d quickly decided that the genre was not for me and so I hadn’t read this novel or any of the others in the series before.

In this novel, we follow the story of Cecily Brown, a girl with an unclear and partly French background adopted by two Girl Guide leaders. She is found to have a talent for music and eventually she joins the Abbey School so that she can formally study the subject.

I found the novel interesting if not particularly enjoyable: exposition is mainly through dialogue, and I prefer writing that concentrates on individual thoughts and feelings. But this is a novel about relationships, and so an emphasis on interactions between characters is appropriate.

Men are mentioned but do not speak until about 70% of the way through the novel. When they are mentioned, it is often to explain their absence; and in their place is a rich network of relationships between women (the novel certainly passes the Bechdel Test.) Cecily’s two guardians are both young women; her friend and music teacher Sandy is widowed at a young age and then bereaved again, but now has a measure of independence. There are two Ladies Marchwood, sisters-in-law; one inherited the title via her husband when the other was widowed, and the relationship between them is close. The present Lady Marchwood lives with Mary-Dorothy Devine, an author of girls’ stories, who is god-daughter to the Lady Marchwood despite the latter being ten years younger.

Adolescence is clearly not treated in the way a modern reader would expect: when one of the adults expresses curiosity about how Cecily (who is 15) came to be adopted, she is sent out of the room to play with a five year old girl, and does not protest.

The novel is largely set in the region of the Sussex Downs–Chanctonbury Ring is mentioned often–but the description of landscape appeared to me to be brief and often colourless. For example:

Standing in the road, her eyes on Chanctonbury’s distant ring of trees crowning a smooth sweep of down, she piped the tunes she knew.

The ending, as one would expect for a children’s novel, is happy, and not only for Cecily, who is reunited with her mother and who (reinforcing the theme of the importance of relationships between women) is thereby made complete:

Cecily, walking among the flowers by a narrow path, high on a ledge above the Swiss valley, felt it must be a dream that a week ago she had not known she had a mother. The last three days seemed a lifetime, but a new life. In the old life she had been Cecily Brown, with no mother. Cecily Ruth Perowne was a new person, rich beyond words[…].

Precious Bane by Mary Webb (1924 Club)

Inaugural post, prompted by the existence of the 1924 Club, the concept of which delighted me.

I chose to read Precious Bane by Mary Webb, simply because of the three eligible novels of which I owned copies, it was the only one both not cited in the master post and which didn’t bore me within the first few pages. (The other two being The Rector’s Daughter by F. M. Mayor, and Some Do Not … by Ford Madox Ford, the first in the Parade’s End tetralogy, respectively.)

Despite having started over a week ago, I have not yet read much more than a third of the novel. Probably its most notable feature is that it is written in Shropshire dialect, which often renders the text opaque and (to me) the thought of picking the book up at all rather forbidding, especially just before bed when I do most of my reading. This post is therefore likely to consist more of a series of impressions rather than of a review proper.

Precious Bane is famous for Stella Gibbons’ parody of it in Cold Comfort Farm, a novel of which I am rather fond. The first sentence does little to allay any apprehension that this will be a somewhat sentimental novel:

It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that mayhappen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time.

This establishes the themes as (heterosexual) romantic love, and nostalgia for a way of life about to be destroyed by new technology; both familiar, the latter especially to anyone who has read any amount of Hardy. Yet this is also a complex sentence, establishing the narrator as intelligent, and there is a suggestion of a reluctance to make the world of the novel easily understood.

This reluctance is borne out within the first few chapters, where dialect words are introduced without explanation, some with a readily discernible meaning (‘tuthree’, for instance, is clearly ‘two or three’), others less so but still used repeatedly, emphasizing the distance between (modern-day) reader and narrator. Funeral practices quite alien to the modern reader are described in some detail; yet the Church’s apparent toleration of traditions such as sin-eating caused me to wonder whether we were dealing with the established Church at all. (A more observant or knowledgeable reader might find themselves less in the dark than I.)

Other expectations are subverted. To me, the mental image of a room lit only by firelight is cosy and welcoming by default. Here, accompanying the description of an upbringing marked by an abusive father, it is ominous:

The room was all dim like a cave, and the red fire burning still and watchful seemed like the eye of the Lord. There was a little red eye in every bit of ware on the dresser, too, where it caught the gleam.

The surveillance of God and of an abusive parent, who justifies his abuse with reference to God, are here conflated frighteningly.

When her father dies, Prue (the narrator) does not escape oppression, as her new status is of servitude to her brother, now the head of the household. Gideon is bent on making money, and to him it appears that women are mere instruments – their mother virtually disappears from the story. What is refreshing is that Prue does not appear to love her brother particularly despite the fact that their upbringing was about equally as traumatic for each of them and that in the hands of a lesser writer might be thought to bind them together particularly strongly.