Lucy Carmichael, Part Two

‘She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is my opposite in character. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy.’ Lucy Carmichael, by Margaret Kennedy

lucy-carmichaelIf this description makes you think of Elizabeth Bennet, then you will enjoy noting several such Pride and Prejudice references throughout this novel.

I enjoyed reading Lucy Carmichael. (This is Part Two of my review of Lucy Carmichael, Part One is here, and for more on the Margaret Kennedy reading event hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, click here)

I think, perhaps, that I enjoyed it more because of knowing the little tidbit given by Violet Powell, in her biography of Margaret Kennedy:

‘Margaret dedicated it to her daughter, Julia. Suitably, as it is a book about the troubles of young girls in coming to terms with life and love.’

This gave me insight into the overall tone of the novel—a loving mother wrote this, with her daughter in mind.

Lucy Carmichael is strong young woman–‘cheerful and confident’, as mentioned at the outset–with many winning character traits. She doesn’t really need a man, but doesn’t realize this until the end. In spite of the fact that she begins rather shockingly as the poor jilted bride, Lucy has a number of men who want to offer her consolation.

‘This,’ (mother might be saying to her daughter), ‘is not the kind of relationship you want. You’re better than that.’

The crux of the matter is quickly given at the outset, so it’s not a spoiler to point out that Lucy is left at the altar. Thus we begin with a once-vibrant young woman, crushed and brought low.

It’s where Lucy Carmichael goes from here that makes the story interesting.

To some extent Kennedy distances the reader from Lucy’s extreme suffering. When Lucy moves away to get a fresh start, we learn of her new life via letters. In this, we are given more side helpings of insight and the notion that she is doing her best to put on a brave face. Still, we are kept at a distance. Some examples:

Oct. 4
‘This letter is so sour I think I had better finish it. I had meant it to be sparkling with wit and humor but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’m not sorry I came, and I think that Slane Forest looks most enticing. I mean to explore it.’

Nov. 1
‘On Sundays I explore Slane Forest on a bicycle or go to read to Mr. Meeker who is blind and has nobody to read to him. I am quite all right, only my hair is falling out. Do you know of a good tonic?’

‘A letter from you has just arrived. What on earth has my mother been saying? I have not been ill. But my hands and feet went numb. I couldn’t feel anything in them. So Emil said I had pernicious anaemia and would die. I pointed out that people don’t die nowadays; they take liver extract.’

Dec. 24
‘I can’t go home for Xmas. I have got shingles. What do you know about that? I didn’t know anybody my age could have them, but they can for I have, or something of the sort. It came on at a horrible party they have at the end of term, after a most depressing Nativity play.’

But we feel for Lucy, very keenly, with these little revelations. And the brilliant aspect of this method results in us wanting to know more of her thoughts and feelings. The reader welcomes the slow revealing of Lucy’s inner world, as the heartache begins to ease. She is a kind, dynamic, ‘can do’ sort of person. As she begins to heal and grow into her new life—indeed, to regain her former brilliant sparks of life—we enter more of her direct conscious thought, experience more of her life as it is happening, and are no longer at one remove by means of secondhand information or letters.

It was almost as though Kennedy (once again, in a kind motherly fashion) kept us at a polite distance from this strong-minded young woman and protected her while intensely vulnerable.

As mentioned, there are many delightful references to Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, for we have none other than a brooding, supercilious Mr. Darcy character sketched for us, under the name of Charles Millwood. He is quite above Lucy in social station—a girl he barely notices at first and then describes as ‘unabashedly middle class’—but he cannot help but be moved by her fresh beauty and strength of character.

‘She lifted her eyes to Charles, who was asking her some question. He thought that he had never in his life seen such beautiful eyes, though he could not put a name to the light which shone in them. The turn of her head, her smile, and this luminous tenderness of her glance, made him feel quite giddy; they tingled through his nerves like a shock.’

I can only quote (as Margaret Kennedy actually did in the book), ‘Are the shades of Pemberley thus to be polluted?’

In her book Jane Austen, Margaret Kennedy gives high accolades to Jane Austen’s premier creation of fiction, Pride and Prejudice, while admitting:

‘Darcy exists only to play in scenes with Elizabeth….Nor can we believe that rude young men of good family, met at balls, turned out later to be as amiable as was Fitzwilliam Darcy.’

Kennedy does not make this mistake with her fictional Charles Millwood.

In the end, we know Lucy has found happiness with herself, that all-important inner self worth that no one can take away.

‘Her restlessness was all gone. A bliss, an ecstasy, came to her, which she had known constantly in childhood but which she had thought to be lost. It came again, the overpowering joy, from the fields in the yellow winter light it came, from the huge sky, from the hard ice beneath her singing skates.

‘She wanted nothing more of life than the moment held…’

Now would be a very good time for Mr. Right to show up, just when he’s not needed, and looks all the better for it. Does he?

‘To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction.’ 

So wrote Margaret Kennedy, in her comments on Pride and Prejudice. In Lucy Carmichael, she created a very charming, very believable heroine. And gave her happiness. Which is always nice to have, in the end.

 

 

The Rose Garden Husband

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‘Well, she had everything that she had wished for on that wet February day in the library. Money, leisure to be pretty, a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much,” rest, if she ever gave herself leave to take it, and the rose garden. She had her wishes, as uncannily fulfilled as if she had been ordering her fate from a department store, and had money to pay for it.’

That may sound like an odd recipe for happiness, but, for me, The Rose Garden Husband was a particularly good choice of novel to read on a fine day in this first of June, with my roses blooming abundantly in the garden.

The novel of choice having been written in 1915, it also had fair chance of being endowed with a fairytale happy ending. And that also sounded very nice.

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Margaret Widdemer

The book was a recent gift to me from a sweet friend who knows I like ‘old books and obscure authors’. And indeed, this writer is new to me, but I was delighted to see some lovely reviews of her work online.

Margaret Widdemer was prolific in output. Her writing career spanned from 1915 to 1968 (or so), and during this period she produced a whopping forty novels, plus many other works such as poetry (winning an early Pulitzer Prize), children’s stories, and essays. The Rose Garden Husband, published in 1915, was her first novel, and it continues to be a fan favorite.

Just say ‘Victorian era romance’, and it might bring to mind selfless heroines who go into declines, a room stuffed with horsehair sofas and stiff conversation, and, oh yes, maudlin sentiment. Widdemer’s novel brings some fresh air to this genre, and while the ending is predictable and a bit neatly packaged, it still delivers on charm and surprisingly humorous narrative. The heroine is every bit as selfless and full of New England backbone as we might have foreseen, but she is also energetic, witty, and comes with a few surprises.

‘I’d marry anything that would give me a rose garden!’

I liked this character a great deal, particularly when I read her list of things she wanted. I took a picture of the page (my copy is a 1915 reprint) because I was charmed by the neat little notes a former reader had written in to accompany the list. Likely the same former reader who had written her name ‘Harriet Rose’ in the flyleaf. Obviously, a desire for jewelry, poetry, and a plethora of shoes will charm ladies of any generation.

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Phyllis’ wish for ‘Ever so many Maxfield Parrish pictures full of Prussian blue skies’, and ‘A room big enough to put all father’s books up’ resonated with me.

Phyllis Harrington gets all this and more, though in the beginning she had only wished for a rose garden with a gentleman husband she wouldn’t have to ‘have any association with’.

She laughs at herself for this wish, however, and pulls herself together from her reverie. (Phyllis does not go into declines but she does go into reveries now and again.)

This sweet story is all about wish fulfillment, but there is an amusing curiosity not lost on the modern reader. Volumes of feminist erudition have been written on the plight of a young woman’s prospects in the fiction of Jane Austen and others of her era and beyond. To marry was a career move, and often the only way to advance in one’s life.

“Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” ― Jane Austen

Margaret Widdemer puts it baldly in this story, and in more modern terms—Marriage is a job opportunity.

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In the narrative, Phyllis has resigned herself to becoming a careworn spinster. Although she loves her career as a librarian, she has no time for social outings or opportunities to meet men. She also sees no way out of her constrained circumstances in life.

“I’m just a battered bisque doll!” she repeated to herself, bitterly.

(This struck me as a bit odd, to tell the truth, as Phyllis, though tired much of the time in the beginning, is described as very pretty with masses of honey blonde hair…more of ‘a pretty bisque figurine’ than a ‘battered bisque doll’, the author wants us to know… surely someone would have noticed her getting on or off the trolley on her way to and from work? Men are so resourceful that way… I would think potential suitors would have been lining up at the library feigning an interest in Modern Literature.)

A visit from a lawyer friend, Mr. De Guenther, sets the stage for a surprising offer for Phyllis.

“I have—we have—a little matter of business to discuss with you tomorrow night, my dear; an offer, I may say, of a different line of work…” [Mr. De Guenther hems and haws around the matter for a bit more, finally concluding, inconclusively: ]“Because the line of work which I wish, or rather my wife wishes, to lay before you is—is a very different line of work!”

The Different Line of Work, as Phyllis comes to realize, is a proposition of marriage from a future-mother-in-law, who is dying. The marriage, as old Mrs. Harrington hopes, will secure the compassionate care of her invalid son after she is gone. Phyllis may have only five or so years of ‘work’, supervising Allan Harrington’s care; then, it being likely he will die by that time, Phyllis will inherit the plump retirement of his entire fortune.

From rags to riches, from spinster to bride. From tweeds to satin, from sturdy librarian’s brogues to satin slippers. A career move, indeed.

Phyllis—a practical girl who is organized and makes lists—has few reservations. Likely she will need to interact with him very little, he has a fleet of servants and caregivers; her only responsibility is to see that they all do their job. Her career as the serious Miss Braithwaite, “Assistant for the Children’s Department, Greenway Branch, City Public Library“, with a background as manager of the Circulation and Cataloguing Departments, has equipped her admirably for this job.

She accepts.

‘It feels partly like going into a nunnery and partly like going into a fairy story,’ she said to herself.’

IMG_1951And what of Allan Harrington, the invalid with a death wish who is about to become the hero of the story?

The ‘scientific’ explanation of his condition, as expressed in 1915, was this:

“You see, it was found that the shock to the nerves, acting on an already over-keyed mind and body, together with some spinal blow concerning which the doctors are still in doubt, had affected Allan’s powers of locomotion.”

Ah, we get it. His paralysis isn’t an inability to walk. He just has no incentive. He wants to die. But Allan is about to meet his new incentive, and find his ‘powers of locomotion’ are capable of being revived.

Phyllis first meets Allan in his darkened sickroom. Her impression is:

‘A Crusader on a tomb. Yes, he looked like that. In the room’s half-dusk the pallor of his still….face and his long, clear-cut hands was nearly the same as the whiteness of the couch draperies. His hair, yellow-brown and waving, flung back from his forehead like a crest, and his dark brows and lashes made the only note of darkness about him.’

In spite of his obvious invalidism and tremulous voice, Phyllis finds him quite beautiful as a man.

‘Somehow she could not think of Allan Harrington’s dying. He was too beautiful to be dead, where nobody could see him any more….He must have been delightful,” she thought, “when he was alive!”

You might guess what is about to happen. We know it as soon as she sees him, and the next scene has her out shopping with Mrs. De Guenther buying:

‘… a heavenly white crepe thing with rosy ribbons and filmy shadow-laces—the negligee of one’s dreams.’

Oh, yes. Phyllis has plans. Plans that involve ‘a heavenly white crepe thing’. Her dream of a rose garden is about to come true, but that dream of ‘a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much”—? Dashed forever.

Oh yes, good things happen in this story. Good things delightfully told.


Additional notes:

Many of Margaret Widdemer’s books are available as ebooks, or can be read online. Other than that, I don’t know if she is actually ‘in print’, except perhaps print on demand copies.

I enjoyed Jane’s review of this book; as usual she describes the story in thoughtful detail, and I love her comment: ‘If you’d like to be captivated, if you have an uncynical heart that needs lifting…this is the book for you.’

I can only add to that it is nice to read a book that highlights unselfishness and kindness in people.

A nice article here, that gives us more insight into the character of Widdemer via her poetry–Read more about Margaret Widdemer as a poet here (Widdemer was one of the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry before it was known as the Pulitzer Prize)

For a possible likeness of the ‘Crusader on a tomb’ here is a fascinating account of one–and this particular knight ended up in New York at the Met Cloisters, oddly enough…but I’m thinking that Margaret actually saw this knight (a year before she published this book in 1915) and was taken by his quiet strength in death’s repose, for the website of the Cloisters gives us this tidbit on the history of the collection:

‘Much of the sculpture at The Met Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. Barnard opened his original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914.’

Crusader

 

Crossriggs

‘Her thoughts were very far away, for she had the happy power of forgetting the outer world altogether when she read anything that interested her.’ —Crossriggs, 1908


A good novelist knows how to begin an absorbing chain of events, and signal to the reader, in effect ‘settle in, I’m going to tell you a story‘. In a Victorian era novel, a beloved formula might commence with a sleepy village. The villagers and their dwellings are sketched out–they are ‘much of a piece’, as they say–but you just know the wonderful fodder for a good narrative is beginning to build.

Next might be mentioned—a brief mention, lest the reader make too much of it—the sad affair of a good-for-nothing relation who is connected to the Big House; a relation who has had the sensibleness to take himself off to parts unknown before the story begins where he can then die offstage without troubling the reader. The good news is, he leaves behind a handsome young heir, who then moves back to the sleepy village and intrigues everyone with his slightly foreign manners. And then… well, let the authors tell us:

‘Then and there happenings began.’

Crossriggs, written in 1908, is a novel I knew I would enjoy after reading just the opening lines. A story doesn’t have to be great literature for us to get lost in it, or care about the characters and what happens to them.

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I like to break up my reading periods with a walk outdoors, if weather permits. In the fresh outdoor air the scenes and conversations continue to play in my mind, though with a feeling of being slightly offstage. My walk the other day (and accompaniment to this book) took me along mossy, overgrown paths and the recent scars of a fierce windstorm that toppled quite a few beloved old trees around town. It was a storm that—for our typically mild Pacific NW weather—seemed very ill-suited to an April day.

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Freshly fallen tree, giving me a chance for close-ups of lichen and blooms

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But for all that, it did make the rugged Scottish landscape of Crossriggs seem not too far from my own, and I came home to become easily immersed in the world cleverly crafted by the Findlater sisters. (Thanks to the excellent reviews of a few book bloggers, previously Liz and Ali, and most recently, Jane, I was moved to finally get down to reading a book I’ve had in my library and on my TBR pile for quite some time.)

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If you’re in the mood for a good period piece, with well-drawn characters, and one that is not too mawkish, sentimental or wordy (like some Victorian literature can be) you should give this one a try.

The Findlater sisters had a vigorous intellect, a lively curiosity, and a shrewd sense of humor. They also had an aunt who, as a biography informs us, was ‘well remembered in Edinburgh society as “a fascinating creature who sang Gaelic songs and wrote verses.”

The aunt sounds delightful. I would be curious to know if her presence made its way into any of the Findlater characters.

For the story of Crossriggs, this sisterly writing duo pairs two fictional sisters, Alex and Mary. The two sisters are of very different dispositions, which provides some interest (with the winning gold star of personality going to Alex, of course, because it is mainly her story), and they live with an eccentric, kindly old father. He provides some entertainment, being a Victorian age vegan, a pacifist with dreams of living off the land, and never far from his well-thumbed copy of the Iliad. Homer, while glorifying war and bloody deeds of valor, made it all so poetic.

‘Old Hopeful was reading aloud to them all. The arrival of a family of five was nothing to him , and an hour or two had sufficed to restore him to his full flow of benevolent optimism.

“Delighted to see you, Robert!” he exclaimed. “We were just having an hour of Homer before the boys went to bed. Tales of windy Troy! Brave days—brave days! These youngsters are to be envied, hearing them for the first time.”

The Hope household is poor, but they are genteel. The fires, in this cottage, die out early on frigid evenings for want of fuel, but a candle stays lit while tired eyes and restless minds read eagerly into the wee hours.

I became utterly immersed in my visit to the village of Crossriggs, and enjoyed being transported back in time; even as the porridge was inevitably scorched, the pudding became watery, the long evening walks across the green became bitter cold, the candles sputtered out, and Old Hopeful fell asleep once again with his worn copy of Homer.

The Findlaters had an eye for detail, and of course, a woman’s knack for conveying the homely bits of information that make a story come to life.

How well I remember it all!” they wrote… and, with that, introduce us to the main characters and tone of the village that was Crossriggs.

We meet the crusty Admiral Cassilis, his handsome nephew Van, and an unusual creature of animal vitality named Dolly Orranmore who wears the wrong shade of green but still manages to look fiercely attractive while she strides about with a whip and a pack of dogs. We also meet the inscrutable Robert Maitland, and Maitland’s aunt, the venerable Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland with her ramrod back. It is she of whom the authors wrote nostalgically…’we shall never look upon her like again.

‘It was a sight to see her walk down the street of Crossriggs, with head erect, her unflinching green eye looking here and there, observant of the life around. The village trembled before her…’

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The quaint village of Crossriggs might take a page from an Austen novel or even bring in a whiff from the Cranford tea tables. Although there are far too many men in Crossriggs to be Gaskell’s Cranford, Alexandra Hope would have fit in very well with a female dominated society. She runs their small, impoverished household with efficiency and spirit, has high ideals, a restless intellect, and never lacks for opinion. She can be ruthlessly critical of people she doesn’t like, but generous to those she does. I can’t say I always liked Alex; her criticisms of other people were often harsh and repetitive, her high-mindedness could be a bit much at times, but she also came crashing down into periods of self-doubt and outright depression. In short, she is painted in real life tones, and just like any of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. Alex surprised me—she was a refreshingly honest character for this era of novel.

There is a love interest throughout the book, with more than one face. The truth from her own heart Alex can barely think of, and there is no internal dialogue on that subject until later in the book.  The reader is not fooled, but is never quite sure how things are going to work out. (Those clever authors had me jumping through a couple of hoops, bless their hearts…)

The dusk was falling, and the air was very still…. How many times, Alex thought, she had walked down that avenue in all weathers! She knew it now under every possible aspect, from the frosts of winter to the green delight of spring and the sleepy warmth of summer—here she was round again to another winter! How quickly the last year had gone; would every year of life glide past at this astonishing pace now! She remembered when the years were long, when a child’s joy in April was un-shadowed by the thought that spring would be over in a few weeks, when a childs’s wonder at winter was untouched by any hope of spring…. ‘Perhaps the child’s is the true way of living—it makes a sort of eternity while it lasts.’

Through it all, the disappointments, the grieving, and the small triumphs, Alex kept a firm hand on her integrity, and an immovable stance on her high moral ground.

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‘O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound…Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street? Did ot the first snowdrops that struggled up to the light from under that iron sod sigh out indescribable promise in their faint suggestive breath? Even the enveloping veils of mist, the grey distance, the low hills that stood beyond the village seemed a fitting background for the lively scene of human life that was enacted there.’

As a side note, I noticed with interest the dedication of the book to Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.

Kate Douglas Wiggin,  is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. If you were born anytime between 1910 and oh, say… the 1960’s… and you were named Rebecca, you might remember this book with impatience, or perhaps affection. Either way, I have no doubt this book was often invoked in your life and conversations. All of my growing up years I could never be introduced to an older person without ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ coming immediately into the dialogue, along with a cheeky, albeit kindly, smile. (I have since forgiven, and even own a copy plus the sequel now.)

Sisters who write...

I would like to read more Findlater stories, in due time. What I am particularly interested in are the collaboration stories they did with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (aka Charlotte Stewart). The Affair At the Inn, one of these, is available as a free e-book. Apparently each author would take turns writing a chapter and advancing the story line. Sounds like a fun exercise–perhaps not good for the novel as an art form, but as a time capsule of the past? Intriguing.

 


Notes: Crossriggs was reprinted by Virago in paperback; I believe all the rest of the Findlater output is out of print, but that is changing as of this year. The copyright protection on Jane’s works (not Mary’s) is ending this year. So any works written solely by Jane Findlater are now in the public domain. The exciting news is that the National Library of Scotland will be making digitalized versions available online. Read here for more.

Here is a list of their other works:

Book Titles:
1895. Sons & Sonnets – Mary Findlater
1896. The Green Graves of Balgowrie – Jane Findlater
1897. Over the Hills – Mary Findlater
1897. A Daughter of Strife -Jane Findlater
1899. Betty Musgrave – Mary Findlater
1899. Rachel – Jane Findlater
1901. A Narrow Way – Mary Findlater
1901. Tales that are Told – Mary and Jane Findlater
1902. The Story of a Mother – Jane Findlater
1903. The Rose of Joy – Mary Findlater
1904. Stones from a Glass House – Jane Findlater
1904. The Affair at the Inn – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart) [note: available as a free e-book]
1905. All that Happened in a Week – Jane Findlater
1906. The Ladder to the Stars – Jane Findlater
1907. A Blind Bird’s Nest – Mary Findlater
1908. Crossriggs – Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Penny Moneypenny- Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Robinetta – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)
1916. Seen and Heard Before and After
1914 -Mary and Jane Findlater
1916. Content With Flies – Mary and Jane Findlater
1912. Seven Scots Stories – Jane Findlater
1914. Tents of a Night – Mary Findlater
1921. A Green Grass Widow and other Stories – Jane Findlater
1923. Beneath the Visiting Moon – Mary and Jane Findlater


 

The Ladies of Lyndon: Margaret Kennedy

‘Copy Lyndon?’ … My dear girl, I couldn’t! It can’t be copied, that’s just it. One man didn’t make it; it’s been the work of generations!…. Pity it should go…’

“Why do you talk of it going? Nobody wants to burn it down.”

“A house dies with its family. Lyndon has come to an end.”’

My own idea of a modern book cover

My own idea of a modern book cover, created with Canva app, from a Rossetti drawing

The fiction of Margaret Kennedy suggests a fall/winter kind of mood for me, so tonight, with the wind sculpting crispy piles of leaves into undulating drifts, (hold off rain, please, just one more night!) a warm fire going and a glass of amber scotch in hand, I finished up The Ladies of Lyndon.margaretkennedyvignettephoto

Generally, I enjoy a good ‘English country house novel’. The Ladies of Lyndon is that, but this engrossing story is really much more than the appealing romance of setting. Perhaps what is suggestive to me of fall/winter reading is that the world Kennedy creates reminds one of a heavily embroidered tapestry to burrow into. There are warm depths and lavish layers and unexpected sheen and a richness of texture; a faintly exotic perfume has been woven in with the silken strands, no detail is too slight, no stitch is wasted.

Other reviewers have commented on the warmth and richness of Kennedy’s style; her lovely heroines remind us of a Rossetti painting, some of her scenes created as ‘extravagantly grand’ as a Watteau composition.

‘A house dies with its family… Lyndon has come to an end.’

We can’t stop thinking about that passage. Besides the fact that The Ladies of Lyndon is an engrossing novel of plot and excellent characterizations, and can be enjoyed on that level alone, there is something Margaret Kennedy was trying to say with this, her first novel. She does seem to have moral underpinnings to her stories that I have read so far. Yet there are no judgements passed with heavy hand, ladling on the gravy of philosophy, as it were; her characters are not drawn in clear black and white tones, good and evil; her eye for folly is keen, still she is sympathetic to all, and renders her conflicts with beautiful subtlety.

Even her buffoons can engage your sympathies, in a curious way. (Sir Thomas Bragge is quite a lavish creation!)

But Margaret Kennedy does explore probing questions, through the dialogue and difficulties of her characters. The period she grew up in, and the period she writes from, was one fraught with change; politically, morally, socially, economically.

The scene set, in this case, is a gracious country house and its wealthy inhabitants. The time period is the close of the sleepy, decadent Edwardian age, just before the first World War. If this makes you think of Downton Abbey, it’s a good comparison; both in time period, and the ‘remains of the day’ aspects of life for the privileged classes in England.

At the apex of these kinds of stories, there is always the big house, the country house; for life under the roof of the English country house was considered a microcosm of all England.

‘There’s nothing in England so English as a house like Lyndon.’  — (Hubert)

Margaret Kennedy, with a mix of irony and pride, lovingly describes this piece of England she created.

via wiki commons; an example of Capability Brown in landscape design

via wiki commons; an example of “Capability Brown” in landscape design

“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely against the somber green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to East and West. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous “Capability Brown” and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained its note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age which had not read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved upon. The measured, decorative mind of man was everywhere apparent.’

This ‘assured artificiality’ provides the perfect setting, like a velvet jewel box, for the lovely Agatha, the newly installed Lady Clewer. Her beauty is described in terms that make you think of the afore-mentioned Rossetti painting, as, ‘a siren’….

… ‘lovely, indolent, and exotic; [she had] achieved that air of expensive fragility which is beauty’s most precious setting.’

The family name attached to Lyndon is Clewer, and at one point, there are three concurrent Lady(s) Clewer. Quite cleverly, for her purposes, Kennedy has drawn them from three different strata of English life.

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

The eldest Lady Clewer, the widowed Marian, is from the manufacturing class; a.k.a. trade, middle class, wealthy. She is brisk, efficient, and takes a practical view of what is involved in the managing of a great house. She has her flaws, but is not unlikeable.

Agatha, young Lady Clewer, as mentioned, has been groomed for nothing else but to grace such a home as Lyndon. She has a kind, sympathetic nature, and wants to see herself serving some greater purpose in life. In spite of this, she has no concept of work, or, for that matter, has the least idea of how to manage a large house. There is always someone to do things for her.

For all her ample, serene beauty, she is ‘fragile’; a word continually used to describe her. She is unable to produce a living heir to continue the Clewer traditions. (This increasing sterility of the privileged class is a familiar one in literary works from this period.) She marries John Clewer for what she thinks is love, but upon consideration, and after a few disappointing years, she realizes she loves her cousin Gilbert even more, and should have married him. She agonizes, through much of the book, over her failed marriage, over what to do, and what is ‘right’. We soon tire of Agatha; she becomes dreary, self-serving, and predictable in the choices she makes.

Her comments, toward the close of the book, are revealing of the overall thrust of the book:

“Dolly, I think you are much too feudal. You want to put the clock back. You want to revive a state of things which is past and gone for ever. What did I do for Lyndon when I had it? I enjoyed it very much; it suited me to live in it, but I did nothing for it and in the end I disgraced it. I know I belong by race to the ‘Bless the Squire and His Relations’ galley, but it’s out of date, all that sort of thing. I never made the smallest attempt to uphold it. It’s [Marian], with all her modern activities, and her dairies, and her laundries, and village institues, who is ready to shoulder responsibility. I know she domineers, but think how she works! Think of all the dull hard work she’s done since she came to Lyndon! She’s what is called middle class, but she’s ready to take on all the unpaid public work, she and her like. Lyndon’s hers. I belong to a class which is of no account now.”

“They do say that these people, what made their money in trade, are getting into all the old houses nowadays,” agreed Dolly.

The last Lady Clewer—Dolly— is the dark horse; enter the new, up and coming working class. Dolly was a maid whose family had served at Lyndon for decades. She marries James, the ‘slightly queer in the head’ brother of John Clewer. It turns out, in the course of things, that James isn’t really mentally deficient, he’s a gifted artist…..which conveniently explains his bursts of brutality, his extreme anti-social behavior, his sardonic unconcern for hurting people he doesn’t respect, and his unexpected acts of kindness toward those he does. (If you have read any of Kennedy’s other books, like The Constant Nymph, you know she gives a unique and yes, exasperatingly exalted status to artists. They live outside the common bounds of societal rules and graces in order to create art that all common people avert their eyes from, because they don’t understand its significance. See The Moon and Sixpence for a similar treatment of this subject.)

But we’re talking about the Ladies here, so back to Dolly. She becomes the next Lady Clewer, which the reader saw coming. Dolly is eminently likeable—she is self-assured, unselfish, and has a kind of practical wisdom and moral grounding that will ensure the survival of her and ‘her kind’. As she immediately begins producing healthy, robust Clewer children—something Agatha has been unable to do— it is clear that types like Dolly are seen as stabilizing the future of the privileged class with an infusion of new life, new thinking, work ethic, morals, and permanence.

‘”Well, I don’t know, Agatha…. It seems a pity…Sort of like this. The way we go on now, people act silly and then find out new ways so as not so suffer for it. They don’t study not to be silly. That isn’t going to make the world any better, not in the long run.” — Dolly

The rest of the women of this novel, all of them related to each other by birth or marriage, are all powerful characters in themselves. Kennedy does not create wimpy sketches of character. They all feel real, authentic, with lives of their own. John Clewer is an exception to this; but he is clearly meant to be ‘a type’. The wealthy squire, who soon ‘thickens in the neck’ and becomes more ruddy by the day; this is a kind of personality that Kennedy apparently feels is already well-known through literature. He needs no ‘fleshing-out’, he is already well-fleshed. So, beyond a few descriptions, such as his prize cattle, his desire for a beautiful, compliant wife, and his one explanation of himself, we are left to surmise about John Clewer.

‘“I’m not an aristocrat who has left off being really useful. I spent most of today in a stuffy court-house fining people for riding their bicycles on the pavement, don’t you know. And what do I get for it? Somebody has to do it.” — John

(Poor John. The world is too complicated for him.)

There’s a fair number of marriages that happen, and you might think you were in Barsetshire for a day. But each union is thoroughly intriguing on its own, and each relationship between the pairs is much more complex than those in an Angela Thirkell novel.

Lois and Hubert are particularly engaging and believable as a couple. Lois is John Crewer’s step-sister, so she is one of the lesser ladies of Lyndon. Lois longs to escape Lyndon, and her knight errant is the self-consciously adorable Hubert.

‘[Hubert] was seized with a tremor of panic as his car turned off the high road, with its flanking hedges and telegraph poles, through lodge gates into Lyndon Park. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt shy and he did not like it at all. He tried to key himself into the temper of bold and daring raider snatching a bride from a hostile stronghold. This descent upon Lyndon ought to have a sort of “Young Lochinvar” swoop in it. But the illusion was destroyed by his slow and spasmodic progress down the park. The swoop was barred by innumerable gates, for Sir John, who bred pedigree cattle, had divided the park into a series of fields…’

Lois and Hubert are well-matched in love and talk endlessly together—Kennedy’s novels are nothing if not rich in dialogue—and by the end of the novel these two are still talking. They are quite useful in conveying information important to the flow of the story, but by the end the (impatient) reader is ready to distill the intensity down into brief, simple narratives, minus dialogue and interruptions to dress for dinner, in order to trundle along more quickly to the inevitable conclusion.

Of the male characters, the most interesting is James Crewers, previously mentioned. He is another product of the same class Agatha is from, and just as helpless in many ways, but for different reasons. He needs Dolly to take care of him, keep his clothes clean and pressed, raise the children, decide what knick-knacks go on the mantel, and even choose where they’ll live. She knows nothing of art, but she just knows her husband is an artist and a gentleman and as such, must be given every possible space in life to create something that the world must need. The endearing thing about these two is that they are devoted to each other.

‘Agatha’s heart was as bleak as the skies outside and she wanted to escape from Dolly and James, and their insufferable security in each other.’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gilbert Blair, the ‘brilliant cousin’ of Agatha. He is not meant to be an attractive character; merely an enigma, a tantalizing shadow to Agatha of what might have been. The amusing thing about Gilbert—although he himself is rarely amused by anything and takes his seeming lofty views much too seriously—is that he is considered by everyone else a Socialist. He’s an ‘unruly element’. (That makes Kennedy’s choice of how to deal with Gilbert all the more piquant, and surprisingly current.) He despises the opulent way of life that Agatha and the Clewers live, but is often there enjoying their generous hospitality. He likes to be known as one who provides health care to the poor and needy, but makes no secret of how he despises the filthy ‘scum’. He is morose, and seems to only take pleasure in pointing out how everyone else is living their lives all wrong.

“You can’t do what you think wrong,” [Agatha] said doubtfully.
“Oh, yes I can,” he assured her.
“But it must be right,” she argued. “We were meant for each other. It was my marriage that was wrong.”
He agreed, but said that he would, he thought, condemn behaviour like theirs in anyone else. He reminded her, a little shamefacedly, that he had accepted John’s hospitality and was returning it by stealing his wife.’

Although this novel explores relationships a great deal—what works and what can go wrong, what leads to happiness and what does not—I think of this more as a country house novel in the overview. Perhaps not in the grand tradition of writers such as Henry James, or Aldous Huxley, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Evelyn Waugh, but it should at least be on the list.

In considering The Ladies of Lyndon in this light, it is worthy of note what Richard Gill wrote in his book Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination:

richardgillbookcover‘…We may conclude that the gravitation of a number of Edwardian novelists toward the country house for their themes and symbolism was neither arbitrary nor coincidental. In a changing world, the country house offered to some, like Wells, and Galsworthy, the possibility of dramatizing the failures of a whole social order; for others, like Forster and Ford, it provided an emblem of what might be restored or at least a clue to what might be conserved.’

Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon, though written in 1923, on the other side of the war, fits more closely in intent, I believe, to the latter category of Forster and Ford. In the strangely cobbled together Clewer family, and their varying fortunes and walks of life, she attempted to posit a future, not just for houses like Lyndon, but for England itself.

“I do love Lyndon. Living in this house makes me realize how much I love it. When I’m at Lyndon I have a feeling sometimes it doesn’t matter what follies we perpetrate because it will survive us. It was made by more sensible people than we are. And sensible people will live there again some day.” — Agatha

ladies-of-lyndon


For further reading on Margaret Kennedy, please see Jane’s blog where she has introduced Margaret Kennedy to a new audience; there are links to excellent reviews from her site. As well, the Kennedy novels I have reviewed so far on this site can be found by using the search box. Or:

Troy Chimneys
The Fool of the Family
The Feast

The Carlyles At Home

“She flickered round me like perpetual radiance, and in spite of my glooms and my misdoings, would at no moment cease to love me and help me…” — Thomas Carlyle

Jane Carlyle is the hero of The Carlyles At Home. I picked up this book because I was interested in Thomas; when I put down the book I was thinking of Jane.janecarlylepastels2

‘Certain it is that she had an indomitable spirit, a stern, strong sense of duty, an heroic endurance of hardship, and an uncompromising love of honesty and truth.’ [Critical and Biographical Essay by H.J. Gibbs]

Spirited and with a keen mind that matched that of her brilliant husband, Jane has left a legacy that continues to interest people today. She didn’t write books or novels, although she occasionally penned a poem. But, being of a social disposition, an engaging, witty person with a flair for storytelling, she wrote letters prodigiously. Thus in a way, though she loved quiet, Jane is a woman who is still talking.

“My Dear, how is it that women who don’t write books write always so much nicer letters than those who do?”—

‘I told her— [wrote Jane] It was, I supposed, because they did not write in the valley of the shadow of their possible future biographer—but wrote what they had to say frankly and naturally.’  — Letters of Jane Carlyle

Even the barest outlines of her ‘frank and natural’ life appeals to the romantically inclined, but the author of The Carlyles at Home has given us more than the barest outlines. What Thea Holme did was extraordinary. The voluminous correspondence the Carlyles left behind is daunting to get through. It is volumes…not slim folios…and the letters criss-cross madly over the years between Thomas and Jane, Thomas and literary friends, Jane and Thomas’ friends, Jane and family, etc.image

This body of correspondence has occupied scholars on many levels, looking for minutia and sometimes concocting elaborate fictions from a few lines. Being a patchwork of random brilliance and witty snippets, trifles and aggravations, and fusses over anything from servants to syllabubs, these letters have provided valuable information to understand the life, the career, and to some degree the mind, of Thomas Carlyle. As well, they they provide a rarely seen snapshot of life in the Victorian age.

By selective rendering, Holme pieced together a chronology and a fascinating, even entertaining, narrative of their life. (You can read the Carlyle letters online here)

Persephone Publishing reissued this fine book in 2002:

‘The Carlyles at Home evokes everyday life from the day the Carlyles moved in, in 1834, until Jane’s death in 1866. Each of the eleven chapters describes different aspects of the house, whether it is yet another builders’ drama or a maid giving birth in the china closet.’ — from the Persephone website

Of particular interest to me, Thea Holme actually lived in the Carlyle home during the writing of this book. (first published in 1965 by Oxford University Press) Her husband, a respected architect, was appointed curator of the property in 1959, which by then had become property of the National Trust. Many of the Carlyle’s original possessions had been restored to the rooms, the small backyard garden — ‘a union of quietness and freshness’ — was brought back to its early days of sweetness, when the Carlyles were anxious to bring a bit of their beloved Scotland into the cramped London space. Even the Carlyle fig tree, planted by Thomas, still produces fruit.

‘A right old strong roomy brick house’, wrote Thomas with satisfaction.

Thomas was particularly keen on the fact that some of the bricks on the property had been made in the time of Henry VIII.

Nothing I know of is more lasting than a well made brick…. We have them here, and still perfect in particular.’

He approved the stair and entry, describing it as ‘a broadish stair, with massive balustrade…corniced and thick as one’s thigh.’ Thomas obviously loved strength, and had to point it out, even if just in a brick or a balustrade.

Jane, ever practical, loved the ‘eight rooms, and innumerable closets and cupboards’, also rejoicing in the fact that the walls were painted white and the rooms were free of bugs.

The feeling that Thea Holme knew well her subject is everywhere in the book, but it is not intrusive or boring, like a tour guide marching us through rooms with a mere recitation of facts. I particularly enjoyed her comment on the aforementioned balustrade that Thomas loved, as one who obviously had lived with it for a few years.

‘These hand-turned spiral banisters, and the ornamental curly carving on which they were supported, were delicate and dust-catching, and must have presented a constant challenge to generations of servants.’

Speaking of servants, there is an entire chapter devoted to them and their ‘winsome’ ways. Jane’s skills as a writer came particularly to the fore when she was describing their servant woes.

In answer to her mother-in-law’s question of ‘what does she do with her time, since she has no children’… (oh dear—surely reams of untold stories here!) Jane provided Mrs. Carlyle with a lively account of ‘what she had been doing’.

‘For my part, I am always as busy as possible; on that side at least I hold out no encouragement to the devil; and yet, suppose you were to look through a microscope, you might be puzzled to discover a trace of what I do. Nevertheless, depend upon it, my doings are not lost; but, invisible to human eyes, they ‘sail down the stream of time into the ocean of eternity,’ and who knows but I may find them after many days?

At present, I have got a rather heavy burden on my shoulders, the guarding of a human being from the perdition of strong liquors. My poor little Helen has been gradually getting more and more into the habit of tippling, until, some fortnight ago, she rushed down into a fit of the most decided drunkenness that I ever happened to witness. Figure the head of the mystic school, and a delicate female like myself, up till after three in the morning, trying to get the maddened creature to bed; not daring to leave her at large for fear she should set fire to the house or cut her own throat. Finally we got her bolted into the back kitchen, in a corner of which she had established herself all coiled up and fuffing like a young tiger about to spring, or like the Bride of Lammermoor (if you ever heard of that profane book). Next day she looked black with shame and despair; and the next following, overcome by her tears and promises and self-upbraidings, I forgave her again, very much to my own surprise. About half an hour after this forgiveness had been accorded, I called her to make me some batter; it was long of coming, and I rang the bell; no answer. I went down to the kitchen, to see the meaning of all this delay, and the meaning was very clear, my penitent was lying on the floor, dead-drunk, spread out like the three legs of Man, with a chair upset beside her, and in the midst of a perfect chaos of dirty dishes and fragments of broken crockery; the whole scene was a lively epitome of a place that shall be nameless. And this happened at ten in the morning! All that day she remained lying on the floor insensible, or occasionally sitting up like a little bundle of dirt, executing a sort of whinner; we could not imagine how she came to be so long in sobering; but it turned out she had a whole bottle of whisky hidden within reach, to which she crawled till it was finished throughout the day.’

Oh, this account had me laughing; particularly when she wrote, ‘suppose you were to look through a microscope,’ —!

Meanwhile Thomas lives in these pages. But once I had Jane in my head, Thomas begins to almost disappear into the Thomas approved ‘quiet room’, the Thomas approved library, the Thomas approved garden for smoking, and the special Thomas gruel, Scots porridge, and various other preparations that Jane supervised the making of for his comfort.

‘Jane’s faith in her husband’s genius was unshakeable.’  The Carlyles at Home

So when it comes to Thomas, I think of him as one of the few philosophers and intellectuals of his age who retained a full head of hair. And of course he outlived Jane by many years.

carlylehair

As to his writings—they are difficult to grasp, and, though I have not taken a survey, it is safe to say he is little read today. The beautiful red cloth bound set you see in the pictures is from my own collection; purchased years ago in a fit of optimism that I was going to read the entire corpus of Carlyle’s works.

What Carlyle really left behind, in terms of literary greatness, ideas, originality, or even a clear blueprint of what he believed, I’ll leave it to the experts to sort out. (They are still sorting it out.)

Yet, to Jane’s credit and far-seeing gaze, he was as deep a thinker as she thought him to be. Some of the fame she had hoped for—and helped him to achieve—they did see in their lifetime.

I don’t like to talk much with people who always agree with me. It is amusing to coquette with an echo for a little while, but one soon tires of it. — Letters of Thomas Carlyle

Thomas and Jane in their Chelsea home

Jane kept a clean and ready table of hospitality for the friends and admirers that began to gather around Thomas. No doubt there was a fair amount of ‘coquetting with echoes’ that went on, but one can only imagine the fascinating conversations held in this dining room at Number 5 Great Cheyne Row! Thinkers, poets, writers, artists of the day gathered here; Dickens, Ruskin, Thackeray, Leigh Hunt were regular visitors. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a friend and correspondent. Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, visited Carlyle and wrote home to his wife of the experience. For experience it was, spending an evening in the company of Carlyle.

‘His wit was sombre, severe, hopeless, his every merriment had madness in it; his humour was tragic even to tears: there lay smouldering in him a whole French Revolution—a Cromwellian Rebellion…. nor could the rich mellowness of his voice, deepened as it was, and made more musical by his broad northern accent, hide from me the restless melancholy.’ — Bronson Alcott

While Jane wrote of him merrily, in a letter to her mother:

‘Aye, faith, is he; a fine, wild, chaotic, noble chap.’

I would like to have been a fly on the wall listening in to these nights of discussion and debate, but, given Jane’s mania for cleanliness, I doubt my presence would have gone unnoticed; said fly would have been summarily dealt with, and likely a maid chastised because of it.

‘Living in a universe of bugs outside; I had entirely ceased to fear them in my own house—having kept it so many years perfectly clean from all such abominations…. But on a sudden—I stooped to look at something the size of a pin point— A cold shudder ran over me, as sure as I lived it was an infant bug!—and oh heaven that bug, little as it was, must have parents,—grandfathers and grandmothers perhaps!— I went on looking then, with phrenzied minuteness—and saw—enough to make me put on my bonnet and rush out wildly, in the black rain, to hunt up a certain trustworthy carpenter to come and take down the bed— The next three days I seemed to be in the thick of a domestic Balaklava—which is now even, only subsiding—not subsided—‘  — Letters of Jane Carlyle

I enjoyed The Carlyles At Home very much, but in the interests of honesty (and feeling Jane’s stern eye of integrity upon me) I should point out that I didn’t always feel that way. imageI bought this book years ago, began to read it eagerly, then put it down. It was a matter of poor timing on my part. What with all the old row house remodeling with attendant moldy dust, crumbling plaster, painting over plaster, papering over paint…not to mention a knack for finding the most irresponsible workmen, it was not the cosy escape into Victorian domesticity I had hoped for. It mirrored too much of my own situation at the time.

Add to that hysterical housemaids crumpling under the strain of keeping house for Jane, the moody brute Thomas railing at fate and dyspepsia, drafty rooms, frequent talk of puddings, drowning of kittens, and little lap dogs being run over by hackney carriages, it was a bit of a rough go. I put it aside for awhile. Like, for a few years.

Yet the Carlyles and their domestic concerns continued to radiate a strange magnetism. The murmur of their endless conversations and lively arguments, the smoke from their sooty fires, the fragrance of Jane’s bread pudding wafting out from the tiny kitchen, the glimpse of Thomas’ deepset blue eyes watching carefully for Jane’s rare, quicksilver smile… waves and currents of invitation seemed to emanate from my bookshelf, pulling me back.

I had to return to the tumultuous household of the Carlyles.

While Jane lived Thomas Carlyle wrote of Heroes. He wrote as freely as his great, conflicted brain and self-doubt would let him, and as widely as the spaces Jane created for him. He wrote a life of Frederick the Great in fiery, glowing prose. He expounded on Oliver Cromwell with fierce pride, and polished the image of John Knox.

image

When Jane died, Thomas wrote no more of heroes. But he did write of Jane.

‘When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.’  —Thomas Carlyle


 

Still At Allways

‘To John Borie, still at Allways’

Is John Borie still at Allways? I have always wondered…

In his curious dedication to A Thatched Roof, Beverley Nichols infuses a sense of timelessness. At Allways, a rambling old Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire, nothing will ever change. The fifteenth century low lintels will still bang heads, bees are still gathering nectar, the roses drug the air with perfume, the grapevine is still scratching at the window—wanting in, the graceless Undine is dancing on her lawn, and John Borie is still there.

Speaking of timelessness, in my side bar, it has had showing, for some time, the book ‘Currently Reading’ as A Thatched Roof. This was true then, when I posted it, and it continues to be true, as I am still reading it.

I am still at Allways.

‘Therefore this book is not a sequel to an early love, it is rather the other half of the same love. The first book was about a garden; this one is about the cottage which stands in that garden.’  —Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof

How could one want to leave? A delightful reminiscence, as with Nichols’ other books of gardening and house-keeping, A Thatched Roof is of the sort that can be picked up and put down, re-read, mulled over, glossed over, chuckled over, and generally be quite useful when the mind needs to be somewhere else, but the body and brain need a safe place to rest.

This is not to trivialize Nichols’ writing. I have quite enjoyed his books related to home and garden, and some of his asides, commentary, and psuedo-factual characters are extremely funny. Who can forget shy and anxious Miss Mint, whom Nichols obviously adored, or gimlet-eyed Mrs. M, whom Nichols obviously detested…?

‘Then loathsomely refreshed, she sat up, and fixed her gimlet eyes upon me.’

As charming as it is, A Thatched Roof sat neglected on my bookshelf for years. I kept beginning it, then putting it down. Why? It was simply too powerful. Surely an odd thing to feel from a writer whose output has been described as ‘rather twee’? Yet Nichols writes with such sprightly reminiscence, with such warm gushes of affection and affectation about his experience with home and garden, that in my situation for five years in a city condo, without either, it was too difficult for me to read.

‘It is always next year when you have a garden.’

It is a book that provided the perfect accompaniment to our recent move, dovetailing here and there in a surprising twist. In it, we experience Nichols’ pure joy in home ownership, his adventures with a dour Scottish housekeeper and the hilarious shenanigans he goes through in an effort to keep her from having to work, we thatch a roof, dig a well, stock the pantry, move in the piano with great ceremony (‘I always feel the piano is a living thing and I hate to see it with its legs wrenched off’), agonize over proper window placement, decorate The Garden Room, discuss with catty delight ‘how white has been done to death’, fall quite terribly in love with Bristol blue glass, and enjoy a host of other waftings into the winsome world of Beverley Nichols, 1920’s Bright Young Thing and fey man about town.

This is the first of what may be a series of posts featuring A Thatched Roof. It is appropriately named for, with all its lightness, few things are more important in a frail human’s life than the acquisition of a roof. Even the determinedly anti-materialist Thoreau began his transcendental, life-changing Walden experience by an old fashioned roof raising.

My new roof from under which I write is not so thatched as Beverley Nichols’ quaint cottage existence, living on a different continent, in a different time and generation as we are. (And I’m quite convinced, with a touch of Nichols’ own querulousness, I would not want anyone but the Duke of Wellington to thatch my roof. Mr. Penrose, that is.)

But that’s getting ahead. It’s easy to do when reading daffy darling Nichols, who has a tendency to rush giddily into everything from philosophical grape tending to the perfect ethereal blue to poetic bee keeping. It is one of the secrets of his charm. His humility is another.

‘I wanted music. I had music….but it would not flow through my pen. It is a terrible thing to be filled with an emotion that one cannot express. People are always telling you, in these days, of the danger of suppressed sex. The dangers of suppressed poetry are surely greater. For the room was charged, drunken, electric–any word you care for–with poetry. The white walls were thick with images….

Yet with all this tolling, this fainting, this sadness among the blossoms, with all this shadowy drift of beauty to the grave, I could make no poem….that is the ultimate bitterness…to put a pen in a man’s hand, and then to freeze his hand, so that he cannot write.

Well, at least you will admit that I have been honest about it.’

Nichols has a way of saying more when he is not trying, and those moments come flitting throughout his prose. I have already mentioned the roses in my new (old) yard—two neglected bushes, giving me flowers of delightful beauty and sweetness. No better ‘welcome to your new home’ could there be. Yet, if you could see the sorry looking bushes they came from, you would wonder how on earth these blooms came about.

RosesSilhouette

After Nichols has saved an ivy with gentle watering and ‘kind words’ he writes the following:

‘I feel at liberty to ask you a question.

Have you this same odd affection for things, like my ivy, which show tremendous courage in the face of adversity? For plants, and animals and people, even if they are common plants…It may be a purely personal weakness, but I feel that somewhere there must be someone who shares it with me.

Often, in the garden, I have found some plant that has seeded itself in a spot where you would think its frail roots could not possibly gain a hold. Perhaps it is only a common rock-plant that has pitched its gay camp on some wind-swept, barren wall, and is flying its yellow flag in the teeth of every wind. But though it is ‘common’, the miraculous courage of such a plant defeats me. I I could no more destroy it, even if it is an intruder, than I could tear up a rose tree that was decked in all the crimson regalia of July.’

RosesOutsideI do feel an odd affection for these roses. rosesMarigoldIt’s impossible to know who planted them or how long they’ve been neglected, but I do know they are survivors.

Who doesn’t respect a survivor?

It’s unlikely we’ll name them Hoover and Al Smith, as Nichols’ named his ivy plants, but they will certainly get the benefit of every ‘kind word’ I can give them. And Nichols’ hoped for ‘somewhere there must be someone who shares it’ has struck a chord with likely more than just me.

A Thatched Roof begins, in the Foreword, with the lovely lines of Cowper:

‘Time as he passes us has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.’

Like the rustle of a dove’s wing, or the fragrant floating path of rose petals, let us continue enjoying these silken sounds floating to us through time.


In an upcoming post–more about my odd pairing of Thoreau and Nichols.


Additional notes:

Beverley Nichols: 1898-1983

Books by Beverley Nichols related to gardening and household lore (via wiki):

Gardening, homes and restoration
• Down the Garden Path (1932) ISBN 978-0-88192-710-8
• A Thatched Roof (1933) ISBN 978-0-88192-728-3
• A Village in a Valley (1934) ISBN 978-0-88192-729-0
• How Does Your Garden Grow? (1935)
• Green Grows the City (1939) ISBN 978-0-88192-779-5
• Merry Hall (1951) ISBN 978-0-88192-804-4
• Laughter on the Stairs (1953) ISBN 978-0-88192-460-2
• Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) ISBN 978-0-88192-467-1
• Garden Open Today (1963) ISBN 978-0-88192-533-3
• Forty Favourite Flowers (1964)
• The Art of Flower Arrangement (1967)
• Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) ISBN 978-0-88192-552-4