Saturday, October 5, 2013

FRANCES FAVIELL, A Chelsea Concerto (1959)


Regular readers of this blog will know that I often get a bit worked up about how some of the obscure books I write about should be reprinted and made available to a larger audience.  But I don't think I've ever found it so completely astonishing that a book hasn't already been reprinted (and, for that matter, become a classic) as I am in the present case.

This title was actually on my Hopeless Wish List, because it's almost nonexistent in the U.S., and I was amazed and thrilled when the San Francisco Public Library came through for me (again) and found a copy (all the way from Cornell University Library—along with a second book that was also on my HWL, which I plan to write about soon!).  And in my Hopeless Wish List post, I had linked to Virginia Nicholson's letter to the Telegraph recommending this book, and I can definitely add my passionate recommendation to hers.

Faviell lived in Chelsea before and during the Blitz, and became a Red Cross volunteer when the war began.  This status, as well as the fact that Chelsea was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London due to its proximity to the Royal Hospital and major bridges over the Thames, meant that Faviell was often in the heart of the action, witnessing and/or involved in fascinating and horrific events throughout the Blitz.  She was also, due to her knowledge of Dutch and Flemish, extensively involved with refugees billeted in Chelsea, and provides vivid and sensitive detail about the refugees she came to know well.  She even informally adopted the daughter of a German refugee who, early in the book, has a nervous breakdown, attempts suicide, and is thereafter confined to a hospital with little hope of recovery, leaving her young daughter stranded.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply submerged in reading about the World War II home front, and I still love returning to the topic occasionally.  There are an incredible number of very worthwhile novels, memoirs, and diaries by women which deal with day-to-day life in wartime.  (I keep meaning to do a post listing some of those, but it hasn't happened yet.  Someday.)  My favorite has always been Vere Hodgson's wonderful diaries, published as Few Eggs and No Oranges (and available from Persephone).  Like Faviell, Hodgson lived in London throughout the war, and her position as a single, working woman (employed by a charity helping the disadvantaged, which switched its focus when the Blitz began to helping those who had been bombed out) creates a fascinating view of day-to-day life.  On the details of wartime domestic life—food shortages, practical functioning, worries about family and friends, how ordinary people felt about events and leaders—Hodgson's diary is still the best I know.  But when it comes to harrowing details of the human toll of the Blitz, there is no match for Faviell's memoir, and for me it will stand right beside Hodgson's diary.

The book begins with a bit of humor, which becomes increasingly rare as the narrative continues.  During an air-raid drill just before the beginning of the war, the wardens try to maintain discipline, there is much joking, and Faviell's dachshund, Vicky is agitated because her owner is lying in the road, a “casualty.” (By the way, Vicky is hilariously nicknamed Miss Hitler because “I had taught her to stand upright on her hind legs and raise one paw in the Nazi salute when ordered to Heil Hitler and then to fall backwards motionless when ordered to 'Die for England'. She was quite famous for this performance which she much enjoyed giving and for which she received a piece of chocolate.”) Discipline finally breaks down due to a sort of emergency:

Old Granny from Paradise Row left her allotted place and started away determinedly in the direction of her home. 'Raid's still on, come back!' shouted a warden at her. 'Call of nature, can't do nothing about that, raid or no raid,' she retorted, and marched resolutely away.

It’s also interesting to look at the different perspectives from which different writers discuss some of the same major events and phenomena.  Faviell, like other writers, mentions Lord Haw Haw's broadcasts ("far from terrifying his listeners, [he] became a source of vast and unfailing amusement") and the pamphlets with which the government attempted to prepare residents for bombing or invasion ("we went about chivvying one another with the words of the clauses about seeing anything suspicious and Be calm, be quick, be exact became a joke in every place of work or exercise which we had to carry out with the Civil Defence").  She describes Londoners' view of the Battle of Britain ("It gave one a strange, shaking, sick feeling of excitement to watch their every movement as though we were following with rapt attention a mock battle at Hendon, but never before had we seen such a thrilling exhibition of aeronautics!") and her encounter with evacuees while visiting family in Plymouth ("I asked the woman how it was working out for we had been hearing of the troubles of those evacuated and those who had to receive them, often against their will. The farmer's wife, a plump, pink-cheeked woman, said bluntly that 'they be terrible ignorant—don't know a pig from a sheep', but that they were settling down and learning and the boys were helping her husband. She loved them in spite of the extra work they caused her.")

But once the Blitz begins, there is understandably little else for Faviell to focus on.  While Vere Hodgson, too, discusses raids and narrow escapes from bombs, she was never, as I recall, dangled headfirst down a hole in the debris of a collapsed building (in her underwear, no less!) to provide solace and chloroform to an injured man:

As I hurried by she turned, said something to the others, then called to me, 'Nurse!' I went over. The man bending over the hole straightened up, but I could not look at him because of the appalling sound coming from the hole. Someone was in mortal anguish down there. The woman in nurse's uniform, who was tall and very largely built, said sharply to me, 'What are your hip measurements?' I said, above the horrible moaning from the hole, 'Thirty-four inches.' One of the men took a piece of stick and measured it across my shoulders, then across my hips, and then put it across the hole. 'Easy—an inch to spare each side,' he said.


'Take off your coat,' said the doctor. I took it off. 'And your dress,' he said. 'It's too dangerous-the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down-better without it.' I took off the dress. 'Fine,' he said shortly when I stood in the 'black-outs', as we called the closed black panties which most of us wore with uniform. 'It'll have to be head first. We'll hold your thighs. Go down first with this torch and see if it's possible to give a morphia injection or not-I doubt it. Ready?' 'Yes,' I said faintly for I was terrified. 'Better hold the torch in your mouth, and keep your arms tight to your sides,' he said. 'Can you grip the torch with your teeth?' I nodded-it was as if I was having a nightmare from which I would soon waken. 'Ready?' Two wardens gripped me by the thighs, swung me up and lowered me down over the hole. 'Keep your body absolutely rigid,' said the doctor. 'Don't be afraid-we'll hold you safe,' said the large woman. 'I ought to be doing this but I'm too big.'


The blood had rushed to my head from being upside down. Fortunately I had done some acrobatic dancing and had been held in this manner previous to being whirled round in the dance, so that keeping my body stiff' was not too much of a strain, but the stench of blood and mess down there caught the pit of my stomach and I was afraid of vomiting and dropping the precious torch. There was plenty of room for my arms at the bottom of the hole so I took the torch cautiously from my teeth and began trying to soothe the remains of what had once been a man.

Difficult to imagine diving (almost literally) into such a situation when one was merely walking along the street toward one's home!  Afterward, she muses:

I lay in bed and I thought of all those times we V.A.D.s had been dropped into holes for the rescue men to practise on us—and I thought of the times my sister and I had had a craze for acrobatic dancing and learned to be held upside down by the thighs or ankles. Who would have thought that such things would ever have been so useful?

There is even worse to come, and what makes Faviell's account so powerful—indeed, so gutwrenching at times—is that she is so matter-of-fact in her descriptions.  Her prose is simple and understated, but wonderfully detailed and unflinching.  Although she does describe her emotions—mainly anger, she says—about the bombing raids and the tragic inhumanity of the Blitz, these observations are in between specific incidents.  The descriptions themselves are hypnotic in their Hemingway-esque approach to even the most horrific scenarios, providing—simply but with amazing power—"just the facts."  There were several passages of the book where I think I became completely unaware of what was happening around me, so lost was I in Faviell's account.  That doesn't happen for me very often.  I remember once when I (someone who hates flying—particularly takeoffs and landings) didn't notice that the plane I was on had actually landed at our destination, so intense was the book I was reading.  That experience has never been repeated, but A Chelsea Concerto came close, since I nearly missed my train stop because of it.


Another element that makes the book so interesting is that it is so grounded in the specifics of place.  Very often, when describing dramatic events, Faviell provides details of streets and sites and proximity to famous locations.  This makes the book particularly come to life for fans of London (particularly Chelsea).  I feel like I'll need to re-read the book before my next trip to London, and make extensive notes for a walking tour of Chelsea! (Oddly, though, Faviell, who lived at 33 Cheyne Place, never mentions that no less a figure than George Eliot had lived for a time at 4 Cheyne Walk, practically around the corner.  I suppose she had more pressing issues on her mind.)

I should say though (if it isn't obvious already) that this book is not for the faint of heart.  A short time after the occasion described above, Faviell's past studies of anatomy cause her to be stuck with the task of attempting to match sundry human extremities left over from a bombing into more or less cohesive wholes so that they could be released to the victims' families.  It's another fascinating, gritty, but absolutely harrowing scene.  This is not one of those humorous, stiff-upper-lip war stories, which may mean that it's not to every reader's taste—but I think it also means that it's a particularly important and valuable document for Blitz historians and those interested in the realities of war.

But lest you think the entire book is equally bleak, there are a few lighter moments, even if the humor is a bit dark.  For example:

During a heavy raid on the Fulham area the big cemetery in the Old Brompton Road received an H.E. bomb, and we were telephoned by friends to come and see the Resurrection there! I did not find it resembled Stanley Spencer's idea of this event at all.

Or, there is this account of an incendiary attack—which seems perhaps a bit more festive than one might expect:

A letter from my mother in Plymouth described one of the terrible fire raids there. From her windows she had a very good view of the distant town and docks. 'It was the most beautiful sight I have seen for a very long time; the sky was alight with dancing lights and they had a blueish green shimmer like a firefly—then a wonderful bright crimson. They came down in thousands—truly like "fire from Heaven"—and everywhere I could hear laughter and shouting as people put them out. While I was watching one came right through the roof of the kitchen and started to blaze on the floor. I picked it up with the tongs and hurled it into the garden where it burned harmlessly on the grass. Another landed on the tiles of the front porch and I reached it with a broom handle and managed to push it over the porch on to the gravel path where it could harm nothing. It was so exciting I and the rain of fireworks was kept up for hours. I stayed up all night in case any more came but they seemed to be dropping them in the direction of the town.'

I was also fascinated with Faviell's accounts of how residents got used to the bombings to such an extent that at times they seem to be rather reckless, as in this account of Faviell and Mrs. Freeth, a neighbor who also provided domestic help:

One lovely sunny morning Mrs. Freeth was hanging out of the studio window cleaning the glass and shaking her duster. The sirens had sounded some time before but nothing much had happened except some gun-fire. Suddenly the noise of planes burst on us and a plane came so low that its shadow could be seen on the sunny studio wall. 'It's a German! It's a German!' she shouted excitedly. 'Look at the black crosses on it—' But now the sound of machine-gun fire and the clatter of bullets was shattering the stillness. 'Come in! Come in!' I screamed. But she was as delighted as if she had seen a rainbow and leaned far out gazing up at the sky. I could not resist joining her. A car came swerving and skidding down the Royal Hospital Road and, pulling up with screeching brakes, came into the archway under the house.

'There's bullet marks all over his roof!' cried Mrs. Freeth.

And here is Faviell with a new sleep-inducing strategy—counting not sheep but bombs:

I was so tired that I fell asleep after counting twenty-three bombs. It was extraordinary how soundly I slept now that the Blitz was on. Before it had started I often found difficulty in getting to sleep—but now I was no sooner in bed than sleep came. I sometimes thought that should a bomb hit the house while I slept thus, I would know nothing and never wake up—and this was how many people died. I had seen them dug from the ruins, their faces peaceful as they lay in their night clothes. It was only horrible when they were laid on the pavement or in the street uncovered, with their faces turned up for all the world to gaze at while blankets were awaited to shield them from the curious.

The book culminates (and I'm not giving anything away, as Faviell mentions it in her introduction) with an incredible, brilliant description of being bombed out herself.  Pregnant with her first child, she must wiggle through a space in the rubble of their house, careful not to bump or move anything for fear that it would further collapse.  This entire scene is the best description I know of the personal horrors of a bombing and its aftermath.  Faviell and her husband walk around dazed, encountering friends who have been told or have assumed that they were dead.  I can't spoil any of this passage by quoting it here, because it is several pages of sustained, hypnotic, unputdownable brilliance and I can’t bear to cut in into bits and pieces.

If you're interested in wartime London, or in the Blitz specifically, I really can't recommend this book highly enough.  I would demand that someone reprint it immediately, but I'm not sure that that would, realistically, produce any results.  Would that I had an actual publishing house of my own instead of the one that exists only in my dreams…  But certainly the book should be widely available and widely read.  Perhaps it would make a perfect companion piece to Persephone's reprint of Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg's letters, which deal in part with the terrible bombings in Germany?  Hmmm…

*     *     *     *     *

After finishing this book, I did a little more poking around to try to find out more about Frances Faviell.  I knew she had written a book called The Dancing Bear: Berlin de Profundis (1954), described vaguely as an autobiography at the front of A Chelsea Concerto.  But it turns out The Dancing Bear is actually nonfiction, a memoir that closely follows a family Faviell knew in Germany in the years immediately following World War II.  So now that book is on my short list of books to read.


Faviell also published three novels, A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958).  The first, according to Time, is “a fictional study of a German family falling apart after a half-decade or more of peace and growing prosperity.”  When it was reprinted by Popular Library, the book got a cover which, I suspect, is not entirely appropriate...


The second is about a neglected teenage girl and her interactions with a French family one summer.  I haven’t been able to locate information about The Fledgeling.

And finally, I discovered that Virginia Nicholson had done additional research on Faviell for her book Millions Like Us, about women in World War II, so I have now done what I’ve long intended to do and bought a copy of Nicholson’s book. I can't wait to dive in more fully, but I do know that among the additional information that Nicholson uncovered, sadly, is that Faviell succumbed to a virulent, inoperable cancer the same year that A Chelsea Concerto was published.  One can't help but wonder what other really fascinating and brilliant work she might have doneand whether her literary fame might not have been substantially greater todayif she had not died at the tragically young age of 46.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for this, Scott. It's funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) that I've now read about that descend-into-the-rubble-to-check-for-survivors incident 4 times in the past few months. When I read it in Millions Like Us, I said, 'wait, I've just read this somewhere else.' But can't place where. Then a few weeks ago I read it again (sans the chloroform part) in Kate Atkinson's Life after Life. Now here. It's chilling.

    So many many Home Front books to be tracked down and read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's funny, Susan. I assume the Millions Like Us scene was quoting from Faviell, but was Atkinson also "borrowing" Faviell's story, do you think? I'm sure similar scenes happened throughout the Blitz, but Faviell's is the most powerful I've read. I really can't believe it's not in print.

      So many Home Front books indeed! And I noticed that the Nicholson book has a bibliography with several titles I was unfamiliar with...

      Delete
  2. Yes, Kate Atkinson used extensive resources in her research for Life after Life (don't go to her website, or you might find even MORE writers to track down) so I wasn't totally surprised to see the incident.

    I find (as I'm sure you do) that reading so many memoirs and biographies and even fiction that take place in the same period has a habit of turning up the same events. Last year, I believe I found myself reading about the bombing of the Cafe de Paris in London three or four times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely. That made me think of the story about the department store that was bombed, and emergency personnel found multiple bodies lying in the street amidst the shattered glass. Only to discover they were actually the store's mannequins. I read that first in Ziegler's London at War (though I think he was quoting George Orwell) and then Connie Willis used it in Blackout. Sometimes truth really is more compelling than fiction...

      Delete
  3. Frances Faviell (Olivia Parker) was my great aunt. I have always thought her work to be extraordinary. I wrote a few years ago to Virago publishing about reprinting her work but they never responded.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting, Katie. As you can tell, I admire your great aunt a lot, and I think it's still true that there's no other book I know of that I find it so hard to believe that it remains out of print and so little known. It should be a classic, and Virago or Persephone should jump on it. In the meantime, I'll be mentioning your aunt again on my next list, to be posted soon...

      Delete
  4. Just to let you know I refer4enced this blog post when i reviewed A Chelsea Concerto on my blog (Bookword) http://www.bookword.co.uk/a-chelsea-concerto-by-frances-faviell/
    Thanks for bringing it to light.

    ReplyDelete

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!