Saturday, June 8, 2013

AMABEL WILLIAMS-ELLIS, Noah’s Ark (1925)


[Spoiler alert?  This is one of those novels where the ending is so foregone that it’s hard to believe anyone could be surprised by it, and it’s so much a part of the central theme that it would be hard to discuss the novel in any depth without addressing its end.  But just in case, this is fair warning that I haven’t hesitated to discuss the ending here.]


Until recently, I had never heard of Amabel Williams-Ellis—which is probably forgivable since virtually all of her published work has been out-of-print for several decades now.  She was a cousin of the Stracheys: prominent historian and Bloomsburyist Lytton, Dorothy, who wrote the lesbian-themed novel Olivia, and James, who was the main English-language translator of Sigmund Freud's works.  Both of her parents were also published writers, and her husband was the prominent architect Clough Williams-Ellis.  Along with a wide array of historical works, biographies, criticism, and a successful series of collections of fairy tales and myths from various parts of the world, Williams-Ellis also wrote five novels.

From what information I was able to find about her novels, the first, Noah's Ark, subtitled “The Love Story of a Respectable Young Couple” (1925), seemed the most promising, and so I was happy to find a copy for cheap on Amazon (and even happier to discover when it arrived that it was an original 1925 edition with dust cover intact—certainly more than I could have expected for a measly $4).

Since my interest in reading novels is not just about finding great reads (though it's certainly a lot of fun when that happens), the fact that this one turned out not to be one of favorites doesn't mean I have any regrets about tracking it down.  One of the things I've learned from reading so many writers that have been largely lost to time, public tastes, and the canon is that some of the most interesting and revealing obscurities are not necessarily "unjustly neglected" or "tragically unrecognized."  It may be pretty understandable that they are out-of-print, but still they may be interesting and revealing.

For me, Noah's Ark falls into that category.  There was a point about halfway through the novel that I contemplated abandoning it.  But I persevered, and I'm glad I did.

As the title indicates, the novel's main concern is with the societal and/or instinctive push—or, since Williams-Ellis's cousin translated Freud, perhaps the word should be "drive"?—to fall in love, marry, and procreate.  Frances and Edward are the young couple being thus driven—amidst breakups, emotional scenes, self-analysis, agonizing about the likelihood of any marriage ending in divorce, and lots of tormented intellectualizing.

This was a timely theme for 1925.  As Ruth Adam points out in her wonderful history, A Woman’s Place (1975)—reprinted (of course) by Persephone—there was an enormous amount of attention paid in the 1920s to marriage and divorce.  Divorce rates were soaring after hasty wartime marriages, and the disproportionate number of unmarried woman following the slaughter of much of the young male population made marriage a larger source of anxiety for women than usual.  Marie Stopes had published her controversial Married Love in 1919 and its follow-up, Wise Parenthood in 1921, with their advocacy of birth control and women's rights in marriage.  And the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 had granted women the same rights to sue for divorce as men—though adultery remained the only recognized grounds.

Logically enough, these concerns figured centrally in fiction and drama of the period.  Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement (1921) was a huge smash on stage, and novels explored both idealized happy marriages like that in Denis Mackail's Greenery Street (1925), another Persephone reprint, and unhappy ones like that in E. H. Young's William (1925), not to mention works like Rose Macaulay's Crewe Train (1926), about an uncivilized girl's attempts to resist the “civilizing” effects of love and marriage.  By 1931, as Adam notes, attitudes had shifted enough that Dodie Smith's early play Autumn Crocus was able to present a young unmarried couple, on vacation together, giving "a moral lecture to a middle-aged Anglican vicar…about the ‘trial marriage’ in which they are engaged.”

Unfortunately, the topical theme of Noah’s Ark is, for me, its weakness.  There’s no question that Williams-Ellis could write—for example, here’s Frances observing the carefree upper classes she enjoys slumming it with:

These men and women were marvellously insulated.  They had grown a rind like the best sort of Jaffa orange.  How intact they were, she thought.  No disturbing thought could get in, the rind kept them whole and juicy and shapely.

And there are lots of instances of her strong writing (many of which I will no doubt find myself compelled to quote below).  One gets the feeling this could have been a really compelling and lovely novel if only Williams-Ellis could have forgotten her intellectualizing.  In fact, as I’ll mention below, I found it really quite shockingly good and way ahead of its time in some ways.  But alas, in the meantime, she spends a LOT of time on her characters’ agonizing.  For just a taste, here are some highlights from four pages of agonizing by Frances early in the novel, when she has split with Edward because he’s a snob:

Lately she hadn’t somehow been able to disregard the suffering set of his chin, that showed you second-rate things for what they were—there was something about Edward before which everything that wasn’t first-rate crumbled up.  Somehow she always gave way to that eliminating placing, that clear realization of categories, such as sheep and goats.


Perhaps, really, it was love she was so glad to be rid of, not altogether poor Edward.  Love was apt to be like the too exciting plot of a novel.  It took you by the shoulder.  It hurried you past everything, so that you could attend to nothing else.  So many books were like that, you couldn’t attend to the description of the willows and how they trailed narrow fingers in the water, because you knew that that wasn’t the serious business at all.


Yes, but all the same, she need not have let him see that she thought him a prig.  If she had simply called him one!  But there it was.  He has seen what she really though, and he had been dreadfully hurt.  And the worst of it was that when he was hurt you saw how unhappy he had been when he was little.  Besides he wasn’t exactly a prig.  He wasn’t in the least vain or self-righteous, and he hated things that it was quite sensible to hate…


All this stream of everyday life was just like the gravy soup at an inn, thick and homely, warm and acceptable.  What was the good of trying to change things?  All about her now in the town, the stream of the commonplace that Edward despised so, was bearing up the chins of the men and women who were swimming with the current.

If you’re still awake after that (and those are just the highlights of four pages), then you can see what I’m talking about.  There are several such lengthy passages, and maybe it’s my weakness as a reader, but I confess I do find it hard to really relate to a character over whose head I would so willingly pour a bucket of cold water…

But when Williams-Ellis is able to get over herself and just write, when you feel that she has inspiration behind her rather than political or didactic motivations, then she can really do her thing.  For example, here is what I take to be a central image of the power of the sheer animal instincts which are such an important concern in the novel—Frances describes her encounter with a hostile swan:

There was the swan again; he had seen her, and now as he always did he came surging across the water, white and splendid in his eternal mindless hostility.  The sight of any human figure touched him off, so to say.  The merest glimpse curved back that neck, raised those orgulous wings, and pulled him across the lake in a blind anger.  It was always the same.  She watched him now, a bow-wave was flowing off from the white rounded breast as he drove the ripples with powerful stroked of his black legs.  There was a pause between each push.  As he rushed rhythmically on nearer, she could hear, inside the outer sound of the wind, the pulsing ripples driven by the strong legs, and see the angry senseless eye, and the black patches on his beak.  Now he was close and the pageant was ended; it had come to its invariable humiliating close in which the bird, now near inshore and not meaning to attack, had nothing to do but paddle away again.  He was capable of repeating this performance a dozen times a day, she knew.  He seemed to have no tinge of recognition and neither increased nor decreased his impersonal violence.

For sheer descriptive power, and for a concise summary of the novel’s theme of Frances and Edward uselessly resisting as they are steered onto Noah’s ark, I think this is pretty wonderful stuff.  And there are powerful moments between Edward and his unemotional Quaker mother, locked in a seemingly loveless marriage with his intellectual father:

She sat now in the window for the light, bending her grey head to the leather and then letting her hot eyes stray out to the sweep of gravel and the laurels.  Her face, with its deep lines, was always changing, but these changes hardly ever accorded with what was going on before her in the room.  There was some deep and secret stream whose flow she watched in bitterness.


He was moved, as he presently went off to his room, to let his hand rest a moment on her shoulder, as she sat very quietly yet somehow stiffly and impermanently by the fire.  When she felt his hand, she look up at him with casual, inattentive eyes, and made no gesture of response.  His hand dropped.  He knew she did not do that sort of thing on purpose, but how superfluous and excluded she could make you feel!  It was just that the gate shut with a spring, and though it had been open a moment before, you never could, and never would, get your foot inside.


You saw by that look this evening how they [she and Edward’s father] stood terribly naked to each other.  They were somehow always at grips, each worn and tense, but it only affected Martineau when they were together.  His mother was for ever jangled with it, it was something like internal bleeding with her, she was sapped and spent.

What an enormous difference between the power of these sections and the cold pontifications of Frances as she overanalyzes, ad nauseum, love and marriage and the risk of devastating Edward by not loving him enough! 

And there are other interesting observations on class, and really striking sketches of how relationships really do unfold and how people in love behave, their anxieties and the day-to-day happiness—which I think must be quite difficult to write about successfully (at least it’s hard to think of very many good examples). 


And I can’t resist throwing in a really nice example of what you might call a “vicarious travelogue,” as Frances makes her way home from work one night:

She was working at a studio in Bloomsbury that she shared with a young woman called Frieda Sharp, and when she didn’t go to meet Edward, she often took a bus to Trafalgar Square and walked through St. James’s Park.

It was so quiet there with the drooping trees, and in the middle of walking you came to the pretty bridge that they’d thought was Chinese.  It was delicious to stand there looking back at the Horse Guards and the Foreign Office; the whole group of them looked from there as if they rose out of the water; it was the most charming view in London, she though, beyond measure elegant, the small domes and turrets piling up white and crisp to a complex, almost fairy outline.  And near you, there were the swishing lines of the toy suspension bridge, and below, the real movement of the ruffling water, the neat pretty ducks, and solemn grotesque pelicans.


The street lamps would soon be lighted, they would be just pricks of orange at first, incidents in this blue twilight.  Later the pinky mauve ones would come out in front of Buckingham Palace; if you walked on the Mall side of the water then you got the lights of Queen Anne’s Mansions reflected in long ruffled streamers in the water.

I wonder if the streetlights outside Buckingham Palace are still “pinky mauve”?  Alas, probably not.

Predictably enough, “Noah’s ark” leads our young couple to reproduce.  Coincidentally, I wrote just recently about Enid Bagnold’s wonderful novel of pregnancy and motherhood, The Squire (1938), and raved about how edgy it was for its time in its descriptions of pregnancy and childbirth.  I don’t retract any of that, since The Squire remains one of my favorite novels and Noah’s Ark is not, but I was still quite shocked to find that another writer was just about as edgy and brilliant on this topic thirteen years earlier.  If many critics and readers were disturbed or disgusted by Bagnold’s book, I wonder what can have been the reaction to the earlier book?

First, a wonderful description of late pregnancy:

Disgusting, she thought, to be a fat old woman like this, panting and waddling…

If it was six months it would be all right.  The first three were exciting, and the next three were reassuring, so that you felt very much pleased with yourself.  But these last three seemed as if they would never end.  You were a bloated grotesque creature with a pinched muddy face, dull eyes, and a great awkward burden in front over which you must lean to do anything.  You got in time to feel that you even had to think across it.  It seemed to insulate you from the world and to dull and dilute every though and every sensation, as if you had grown slowly deaf.

Frances concludes by exclaiming to herself, “Oh, to be oviparous, now that April’s here.”  I had to look up the word (which refers to animals that lay eggs rather than giving birth), but you have to admit it’s a good line.

And then there’s the birth itself, which I can’t resist quoting at length:

The waves broke in a spray of pain and receded, and broke…This one was unbearable.  The sweat broke out on her.  It was like a demon now, tying you into knots. […] The doctor was there now where Edward had been.  He had a bottle in his hand.

‘Chloroform…you’d like the chloroform now?’

She nodded.  Quick, quick, she would get away—it was coming on again—the smell was sweet.  She took a long, frantic breath, as if she was running—running away from the pain, away, away…she felt a sense of exultation as she raced down the long road and heard—far away—a long bellow of a scream and saw that poor thing writhe again.  She didn’t care, it was funny.  But she had got away, away…


And then she felt her body gathering itself desperately up, but the chloroform came again before the new wave of pain broke…There was a long pause.  They were hauling her about.  She was like a sack, only her face was alive.  They laid her down, she seemed to sink right into the bed.  She lay there low on her back.  Then she began to remember.  It was something she had heard, something very exciting.  She tried to look, tried to turn her head.  No.  Her face was all stiff, it would not speak.  But she could listen.  There was something in the room, something odd, not just people moving about, something exciting.  There was something moving, a little creaking…It was the wicker cradle creaking.  If only she could see…She tried her mouth again, a little funny sound came out…A huge face with a white cap was just above.  It said:

‘It’s a beautiful little girl, Mrs. Thornhill.’

Whew!  In these inspired moments, Williams-Ellis can really rival Bagnold.  And she doesn’t even shy away from what was apparently one of the most shocking elements of Bagnold’s book—breastfeeding.  Actually, it’s still a dicy topic at times, if you watch the news.  But Williams-Ellis uses breastfeeding to reach a kind of conclusion in regard to the novel’s main theme:

Frances lifted the child up and shifted her over to suck on the other side.  Edward watched how, taken from the nipple, the baby twisted and turned its head from side to side, grizzling and mewing in what sounded like puny anger.  Again it hunted with its face, and again it gave its little baffled scream.  When its mother found the breast again for it, there was the same gusto and guzzling.  But the whole performance was in miniature this time and enacted with much less desperation, for the child was half fed.

‘I love that,’ Edward said.  ‘You realize what vitality she’s got.  She’s so determined.’

‘It’s Napoleonic!  She makes the merest convenience of me…I might be a horse-trough!’  Frances smiled at him.

‘It’s her will to live.  I expect she thinks any meal might be the last…she doesn’t know.’

‘Catherine just is the will to live.’…Frances answered…

For these passages alone, Noah’s Ark seems worthy of more attention than it seems to have ever gotten.  Tedious intellectualizing it has plenty of, but it also has some genuine inspiration.

And speaking of tedious intellectualizing, how is the novel concluded in terms of marriage and divorce, the themes that have been so endlessly chewed over through the novel?  Will all the agonizing Frances has done about their future be for naught?

Well, it’s hard to say.  They have, after all, served their biological and social purpose now, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the personal element is shunted aside rather dismissively:

‘It’s nice,’ she said, still looking at him, ‘it’s oddly nice being married to you…I shall recommend you everywhere Edward dear.’  She rubbed her head softly against the nearest bit of his waistcoat.

‘Could it last, Frances dear?’ he said eagerly at last.  ‘Do say you’ll try and make it.’

‘It might, Edward…it never does…but it always might.’

For a novel about marriage from the 1920s, that might even be considered an optimistic ending!

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