Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1212: Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund is the second of two novellas by Mrs. Oliphant contained in my Persephone Press edition of The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. Although I was disappointed in the first novella, I found this one much more sensational and touching. Both are about the consequences of middle-aged passion.

Those who are more aware of their British legends could probably guess where this story was going right from the beginning. It took me a bit longer.

Mrs. Lycett-Landon lives a contented existence on the banks of the Mersey outside Liverpool. She has married a successful businessman and has two cheerful children. Her son Horace is just old enough to join his father’s firm and is day-dreaming about the success he’ll make of it. Her husband Robert is an affectionate father and spouse.

Robert has been speaking of sending Horace to the London office to train with young Mr. Fareham, the nephew of Robert’s partner. However, after a business trip, Robert tells Mrs. Lycett-Landon that the London office is in disarray because of Fareham’s undisciplined work habits. He will have to travel more to London and stay longer to sort out the trouble.

Robert is home less often after that and is irritable when he is home. He looks eager to leave when he returns to London and seldom writes home. If you can’t guess what is going on, I’m surprised, but his family has no notion of it.

It is actually even worse than you’re probably guessing. The question is not so much what Mrs. Lycett-Landon discovers as what she decides to do about it.

Although it’s hard to imagine a woman dealing with this problem in the way she does, I was touched by Mrs. Lycett-Landon’s solution. I found this a much more involving story than the other. In both, the person involved holds back information, but in this one, it’s to more effect.

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Day 1210: Le Morte D’Arthur

Cover for Le Morte D'ArthurIt’s time for my review for the latest Classics Club Spin, and the spin assigned me Le Morte D’Arthur to read by the end of April.

If I’d been aware of how long this book is, I might have thought twice about putting it on my Classics Club list. It’s not the length that made it so difficult to read, though, but the repetitiveness of one knight after another getting into a joust and smiting right and left.

I tried hard to finish this book, but after a month of reading it (interrupted by a few other books), I decided to skip to the last two books (out of twenty-one), which deal with Lancelot’s break with Arthur and the end of Arthur’s kingdom. All told, I read about 400 pages.

I actually began eager to read the original of the Arthurian legends or at least as original as we have. The introduction to Cassell’s unabridged edition says that we don’t know the source of the book, although Malory makes many references to “the French book.” The structure of the book suggests that it may be a compilation of every Arthurian story known to Malory, as it is full of chapters about fight after fight. In fact, after a while I pictured Britain, particularly Cornwall and Wales, as seething with wandering knights, who, when they encounter one another, go immediately into battle. I was also struck by how often they don’t recognize each other even when in the same room and presumably out of armor.

There are some sustained story lines, such as the tale of Tristram and La Beale Isoud, and they are interesting, but they’re broken up and sprinkled in among the fights, and of course they too involve fights.

Women are fairly negligibly treated, not surprising for the time despite the patina of chivalry, which is supposed to suggest otherwise. We don’t see much of them or learn what they are like. In fact, Arthur says at the end of the book that he isn’t as upset about losing Guenever as the loss of his knights “. . . for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.” Which might give us a clue why Guenever preferred Lancelot. In any event, characterization isn’t a strong suit of medieval literature.

I would say that this book is best for dipping into rather than trying to read all at once. It is an important work of literature, and sometimes the language is quite charming. However, its form is very foreign to us now and shows us just how far literature has come. (There is a glossary in the back of the version I read, which unfortunately I didn’t discover until the end.)

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Day 1204: The 1977 Club! The Women’s Room

Cover for The Women's RoomThere’s nothing subtle about The Women’s Room. It’s a book I reread for the 1977 Club, and I was curious about whether it would affect me the way it did the first time, years ago.

It is the story of Mira and her awakening consciousness of the role of gender in our society. In its time, the novel was an important feminist work that profoundly affected the thinking of many women and perhaps some men. I remember vividly watching the movie on TV with a male coworker. He was astounded at the examples of sexism but even more astounded because I kept saying “That’s happened to me,” pretty much for every example.

French uses the vehicle of the novel to tell the stories of many women. First, it focuses on Mira’s suburbanite girlfriends when she is a young wife and mother in the 1950’s. Without fail, they are all treated poorly by their husbands. She prides herself on being the perfect wife and mother even though she finds life unfulfilling, but that doesn’t save her from a divorce when she is in her late 30’s.

The bulk of the novel focuses on the women she befriends as a graduate student at Harvard. These women are awakening to paternalism in our society. Still, they, too, are all betrayed in some way by their husbands or boyfriends.

I’m struggling now to express my many thoughts with some kind of coherency. One is about the crudeness of it all. First, I was struck by some of the things the men said to their wives in the early portions of the novel and by how the wives accepted this kind of stuff without being outraged. I’m talking about terrible name calling and reducing everything to sex. These women were more my mother’s age than mine, so I have no way of telling whether these scenes were exaggerated.

But overall, I feel that French makes a lot of generalizations and stereotypes men as badly as the men stereotype the women in her novel. I was always confused in the 70’s by some men who seemed to equate feminism with man-hating, but rereading this novel, I can see where that idea comes from.

Finally, it is just plain crude. I understand that women were taking pride in being able to discuss sex and use words that were only allowed to men before, but the language really grated on me. Moreover, there is free use of ethnic slurs. Maybe we’re supposed to know that they are used ironically, but there’s no overt indication that this is the case.

1977 club logoI think The Women’s Room is important as a historical document but not as literature. There are, for example, many places where the story is interrupted by little polemics by a narrator who is unnamed until the end of the novel (although it’s not too difficult to figure out who she is). I found these interruptions, where the narrator has to overtly draw conclusions about the events, irritating and unsubtle, as if French thinks her readers are too stupid to come to the right conclusions. Same with many of the discussions between her characters, although that’s a better way to handle the subjects.

Although my memory of my first reading of this book, when I was in my 20’s, was that I was struck by how much of it mirrored some of my experience, I do remember that French wrote another book, which I also read. And I remember thinking, oh, more of the same stuff, and putting it aside.

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Day 1202: The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow

Cover for The Mystery of Mrs. BlencarrowFlighty Kitty Bircham has flown to Gretna Green to elope with her swain when she discovers in the marriage record a juicy bit of gossip. The respectable and dignified widow from her village, Mrs. Joan Blencarrow, has married someone secretly. Indeed, she has been married for three years!

Kitty is so excited about her discovery that she fails to notice the name of Mrs. Blencarrow’s husband. Instead of running off with her own new husband to London as planned, Kitty goes straight home, figuring this juicy bit of news will win her forgiveness from her mother.

Soon the neighborhood is agog. Is the rumor true or not? Mrs. Blencarrow even has a visit from her own uncles trying to find out, but she only tells the vicar the truth.

I was somewhat dissatisfied with this Victorian era sensationalist novella, which is a character study rather than a mystery. Part of the truth comes out fairly quickly, but it isn’t hard to guess the other part. And we get a very unfinished story. Why did the couple marry? That’s not at all clear. Are we to believe it was from passion? That’s hard to believe considering her later reaction. What is clear is that Mrs. Blencarrow thinks she will be in disgrace if the truth comes out. But that doesn’t answer the question of why they married in the first place.

Mrs. Blencarrow is an interesting person, and this is a very short work, so a qualified approval.

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Day 1198: Consequences

Cover of ConsequencesIf you expect E. M. Delafield’s Consequences to be like her witty Diary of a Provincial Lady, you will be surprised. Although it addresses themes that Diary touched on much more lightly, it is serious, sad, and even bitter.

Alex Clare grows up in the typical environment of a Victorian child of wealthy parents. She and her brothers and sisters are raised by Nanny and only see their parents at specific times. Alex is an aggressive child with her siblings, but her desire is to have someone care about her. Since Nanny dislikes her and Cedric and Barbara band against her, she tries to please her mother.

But a childish game causes a near tragedy. Alex’s part in it is misinterpreted, and she feels too guilty to defend herself, so her parents send her away to a convent school in Belgium.

Here, Alex begins a lifelong pattern of fastening upon someone for whom she will do anything. In school, it is Queenie, for whom she breaks rules to give treats and try to hang around her. These kinds of crushes are forbidden, and Alex is constantly in trouble for breaking rules, while Queenie blithely accepts forbidden treats and gets away with it. Alex does not learn to develop standards of behavior. She just yearns for love and understanding without having the ability to evoke it from others.

This childhood does not prepare her for young womanhood, where the only expectation is that she will marry well. She does not enjoy all the parties and events she must attend and is unable to hide her discontent.

Alex is not an attractive character. She is needy, unprincipled, and depressive. But her small transgressions are magnified by her family until she feels friendless and isolated.

Consequences is Delafield’s indictment of this kind of upbringing and the expectations for women of her class and time. It is also a character study of a woman who feels lost wherever she is. It is quite the feminist statement, published in 1919. The reviews included in the appendix of the Persephone edition show that its message was not well understood or accepted by the (presumably) male literary world of its time.

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Day 1192: The Priory

Cover for The PrioryBest of Five!
Saunby is an old estate that belongs to Major Marwood. It was once a priory, and the ruins are still there. The major is a poor landlord and manager who cares only for cricket. Although he has hundreds of pounds of unpaid bills and the house is falling to bits, he spends a huge amount of money every year in hosting two weeks of cricket matches.

The major is most unhappy about how the house is being run. His sister, Victoria, who is supposed to be in charge of the house, pays attention to nothing but her art, producing one atrocious painting after another. His two daughters, Christine and Penelope, are happy in their isolation up in the nursery, making odd-looking dresses and ridiculing the neighbors. The servants do what they want. Everyone in the household is completely self-absorbed.

So, the major decides it is time he remarried, principally to get someone to take care of the house and keep expenses in check.  He has his eyes upon Anthea Sumpton, a woman no longer young who he is sure will be sensible.

Unfortunately, Anthea is in love with him and doesn’t understand he is making a marriage of convenience. Soon, she will have a rude awakening.

Everyone in this novel is due for a rude awakening, however, as the focus of the novel moves to Christine and what happens when she falls in love with Nicholas Ashwell. He is one of her father’s cricket players who has been raised to be as selfish as her family is.

This novel is also somewhat an Upstairs/Downstairs novel at first, when the new maid, Bessy, falls in love with Thompson, who helps with the cricket. He returns her feelings but doesn’t reckon with the rejected Bertha.

This novel is the best kind, the type in which characters develop and you change your mind about them. Beginning in the late 1930’s, it is also winding its way slowly toward the war. I found the novel beautifully written, involving, and ultimately touching, as a dysfunctional family learns to become slightly more functional. I have enjoyed all of Whipple’s novels, but I think I liked this one best, so far.

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