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Posts Tagged ‘VIta Sackville-West’

This was the second of two birthday gifts by Vita Sackville-West (in November I reviewed The Edwardians). All Passion Spent is about Lady Slane, the eighty-eight year old recent widow of Lord Slane, former prime minister and former viceroy of India. It’s a short novel, only 169 pages, and covers a year in the old woman’s life. When the novel begins, her husband’s body is still in the house but their children have gathered to begin planning their mother’s future. She acquiesces to their plans for the funeral, and for her to distribute her jewels (which she doesn’t do as they hope) and sell the family home.

But then she quietly announces she is moving to a home in Hampstead which she recalls seeing for rent thirty years earlier. Remarkably, she makes this plan without knowing it is empty once again. Escaping her meddlesome offspring she takes the underground to Hampstead, meets the landlord/owner, Mr. Bucktrout, and makes plans to move in with her maid, Genoux. Baffled but somewhat relieved to have her out of their hair, the family all retreat. And Lady Slane and Genoux, along with their new friends Mr. Bucktrout and his handyman Mr. Gosheron, spend quiet, happy days in Hampstead.

Lady Slane spends time ruminating on her youth, and this is where the story really gets interesting. She had always been an obedient, introspective daughter, never revealing to her parents that she really wished to be an artist. Now she sits in the sun in Hampstead remembering her secret desire, and the way that she was swept into engagement and marriage. It’s interesting that Sackville-West, who defied her own parents wishes that she make a “good” match with a very wealthy man of ancient title and instead married Harold Nicholson, whose family’s title was only as old as Victoria and who had little income, so aptly describes the opposite experience, of a young woman doing what’s expected.

Into this reflective time of Lady Slane’s life, an old acquaintance, Mr. FitzGeorge, who turns out to be a friend of Kay, the son she feels is most like her, comes into her life and becomes her friend, awakening long forgotten emotions and memories. Sackville-West writes, “It disturbed her old-age peacefulness. It revived the perplexities of her youth. It shocked her slightly, and pleased her more than it shocked. It was the very last thing she had ever expected — she whose days were now made up of retrospect and of only one anticipation.”

There are some delicious twists from this point on that I can’t give away. I adored the characters, even the loathsome, squabbling, money-grubbing family members. I loved the descriptions of Lady Slane’s life and homes. The story is charming. And the ending is just right. There’s a scene with a museum director, a police inspector, and Kay towards the end of the book that is funny and dramatic and dark in the excellent way of English literary novels. It’s a book that needs to be filmed (I understand there is an adaptation from 1986, but I can imagine one with Hugh Grant as Kay).

Smart, funny, insightful, an examination of the roles of women in Edwardian society. It was just what I needed after a difficult read.

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I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

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