Quite a while back now, I posted about the Friends of the SF Public Library book sale and mentioned that I had acquired my first Norah Lofts novel. Part of the reason I couldn't resist picking it up was that it would be the first "War Economy Standard" book to (permanently) grace my bookshelves. Although these titles—printed on cheap, thin paper, relatively small print, and flimsy bindings—are hardly the crème de la crème when it comes to reader-friendly editions, the thought that they were produced in wartime England somehow makes me feel a connection to what, for me, is one of the most interesting times in literary—or any other—history.
War Economy Standard books came with this seal:
And, although I haven't seen this in other WES books I've borrowed from libraries, the Lofts book also has this disclaimer:
These notices notwithstanding, the book's ability to evoke its original readers—probably predominantly women, reading the book after an exhausting day of war work or waiting in queues or even while crowded into a bomb shelter—more than makes up for the small print and paper that, I suspect, might simply dissolve if splashed with water.
Only a night or two after finishing The Brittle Glass, Andy and I happened to watch Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. And now and then while watching Garbo chewing the scenery (I admit that although we liked the movie we also indulged in a bit of mockery of the great Garbo's melodramatic close-ups—gazing forlornly at the ceiling before pausing the movie to refill our drinks and so on), I found myself thinking of Sorrel Kingaby, Lofts' memorable heroine. The two heroines perhaps have little in common (and I doubt that Sorrel spent quite so much time worrying about her close-ups), but they are both women ahead of their time, occupying nontraditional positions for women, but also having to face the limitations, restrictions, and resentments those positions entail. Suffice it to say that I found Lofts' version a bit more convincing, though.
Set in England in the years just after the French Revolution, The Brittle Glass follows Sorrel from birth until after her father's death, when she takes over his business and runs it "just like a man." Josiah Kingaby has, bitterly, had little choice but to leave it to her, since his only son—out of a total of five children—has died in childhood. He has alienated Sorrel with shoddy treatment, due to his resentment of her sex, but she is, in fact, a chip off the old block.
|Cover of a more recent reprint|
This novel—unlike so many of the books I write about here—is heavy on plot. There is drama, bitterness, adventure, danger, resentment, romance, and crime galore, and Lofts is certainly a gifted storyteller—or else I am a pushover—as I found the novel compulsively readable. It would therefore be a shame to give away very much of the plot, so I'll focus on characters and themes instead.
The story is told in turn by four main narrators, each of whom sees Sorrel from a different perspective—plus a fifth, who may be more or less Norah Lofts herself and who appears in a short epilogue. Now, I admit that I very often find this strategy annoying. Just as I get accustomed to one narrator, he or she vanishes and I have to familiarize myself with another one. In the wrong hands, the technique can make an entire novel feel as awkward and alienating as those first few pages of even a quite good novel—all explication and scene-setting and introduction of characters without anything to really pull the reader in.
|And a pretty bad earlier cover|
But Lofts' hands are obviously the right ones. She uses each new narrator to make revelations about Sorrel that the previous narrator couldn't have known, so that the technique actually makes the story more compulsive rather than less. And Lofts eschews all the complexities of, say, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, in which each narrator's style and rhythm of speaking is meticulously different from the others. If I were to provide a generic quote from each of Lofts' narrators, I could safely bet you couldn't tell one from the other. And that might be judged a weakness from a higher brow literary perspective, but is a huge strength if the goal is readability and enjoyment.
The first section is narrated by Louisa Kingaby (Cousin Lou). When I mentioned the book in my book sale post, I quoted the beginning of her section as having made me want to read the book. But I actually cut off the quote too soon:
For nearly fifty years I had performed the tasks and carried out the duties which fall to the lot of the unmarried and not-quite-independent member of a large family. I had been present at births, and deathbeds, tended numerous cases of sickness, and been often entrusted with the tactful breaking of bad news. But I do not think I ever had a task less to my liking than that of telling my cousin Josiah that his first-born was a daughter.
For the ending of this paragraph introduces, right from the start, the crucial theme of girls being of less value than boys. In fact, Lou goes on soon after to ponder this puzzling valuation:
And I thought how strange men were. My father had not welcomed me; yet it was I who stayed with him to the end and nursed him through two apoplectic strokes and closed his eyes at the last. Men were indeed very strange.
And Lou, who has been, since childhood, more or less in love with Josiah—in whose home she becomes a permanent fixture after Sorrel's birth—has a real charm all her own. My only regret about the multiple narrator strategy here is that it deprived me of the chance of spending more time in Lou's head. And Lofts too may have felt Lou to be a kindred spirit, as she has Lou muse, Room of One's Own style:
But although I have always been kept busy my mind has never been so much occupied that I could not notice what went on around me. And maybe because my own life has not been very eventful, I have tended to take a great interest in other people's more exciting ones. (Sometimes I thought that if I had had more time and more privacy when I was young I could have written a book like Mrs. Radcliffe or Miss Fanny Burney.)
Lou tells Sorel's story from her birth until just after her father's death. Together, they both outgrow their love for the old man who treats Sorrel so poorly because she is a mere girl, and Lou's steadfast devotion shifts to Sorel instead.
The second section, beginning just after Sorel has declared her intention of running her father's business for herself, is narrated by Jamie Brooke, a young clerk in her father's office. In this section, there is romance of a sort, and Sorrel's exhilarating confrontation with the tyrannical head clerk, Cobbitt, who fancies himself unofficially in charge since there is only a wisp of a girl overseeing things. We also get Jamie's apt description of Sorrel's personality (which perhaps fits the novel itself as well?):
I described a perfectly ordinary young girl whom circumstances had placed in an unusual position; but as the days followed one another and financial worries became so familiar to me that they no longer could absorb all my attention, I became aware that Sorrel Kingaby was not a perfectly ordinary young girl. She was like a box with which I used to play when I was small. It was square and the sides were painted; and inside it there was another square box with other pictures on the sides; and within that there was another, and another, until the last cube was too small to have a lid and was like a dice, solid, but with infinitesimal pictures on its tiny sides. And each box, although only part of the whole plaything, was complete and perfect in itself.
The third section, narrated by a rather surprisingly intellectual smuggler named Tom Borthwick, shows us another, very different side of Sorrel, and the fourth, narrated by the governess Sorrel hires to care for her younger sisters, powerfully reveals the darker side of Sorrel's independence. All of the narrations are equally compelling—even the last, for whose narrator few readers will find much sympathy.
The third narrator, Borthwick, is prone to what in later years would have been called the blues, and the sense of impending doom that comes upon him now and then not only plays eloquently into one of the main themes of the novel, but likewise must have expressed what many people were feeling when the novel was written, in the midst of the darkest times of the war, when Britain's fate was still very much up in the air. This passage might even be a sort of oblique reference to the war happening 150-odd years in the novel's future:
It was the thing that I called, in my mind, my darkness; it was, I think, akin to the evil spirit that troubled Saul, the king of Israel; but in my case sweet music, especially harp music would only have aggravated the condition. […] In the hour of the evil spirit I saw myself, and other men, not as trees, walking, but as motes, infinitesimally small, blowing through the cold outer spaces of the universe, lost between star and star, exiled from all comfort under the icy light of the moon . . . a lifetime less than a breath's span, a person less than an ant. […] Above all, I wanted to leave the moonlight, seek warmth and brightness, have a glass in my hand, a pipe in my mouth, some cheerful voice in my ears, so that I might forget the vision of a doomed human race, rushed along, like cattle to the slaughter-house.
And this bleak vision is at the heart of The Brittle Glass, as the short epilogue spells out. There, a fifth narrator, in the year 1937, comes across Sorrel's grave, and then meets a schoolmistress who tells her a bit more about Sorrel and mentions an old man in town who might know more. It turns out that the story we've read has come from the old man's gossipy, rather cynical memories, but even as the schoolmistress mentions him, she casts some doubt on his version of the story:
"Anyhow, I may be silly; but I prefer to keep my illusions—or rather to depend upon my own imagination instead of old Middleditch's."
She spoke the name with rancour; I noted it with care. But I said, soothingly, "After all, in a matter of this kind one guess is as good as another, isn't it?"
So that we are left, rather eloquently, musing along with the narrator about how present reality will one day be irretrievably shrouded in the mists of time, and wondering whether there might not be much more to Sorrel's story that could never be known:
After all, how much nearer, even with much documentary evidence, can we come to understanding anyone of the myriad dead who have gone to their graves, carrying their real secrets, of motive and essence and personality, into the silence with them?
Oddly, although even I, approaching this novel with a bit of a resistance to historical fiction, ultimately found it to be a very powerful story, it does not seem to be one of Lofts' most admired works. Several of her novels have been reprinted in the last few years and remain in print, and more are available in ebook format. But The Brittle Glass is not among them. How could this be?