When I posted a while back about my love/hate relationship with Ena Limebeer's The Dove and Roebuck, I wrote a little about my reluctance to write about books that I don't completely enjoy. Since I started this blog to share information about writers and works that don't usually get much attention, writing about how disappointed or lukewarm I am about a book no one happens to be reading or even planning to read (or in fact has so much as heard of) seems like beating the proverbial dead horse.
But this book posed a bit of a dilemma for me. It was one of those books that I occasionally grab (with some difficulty, in this case) from a library purely because I've read contemporary reviews and thought it sounded intriguing. I had come across a Saturday Review discussion of the novel, summarizing the situation of a woman who has abandoned her family for many years and is now returning home, and something about that decription intrigued me.
Mary Crosbie apparently wrote seven novels from the 1900s to 1920s, the present title being her fifth. About her other novels—Disciples (1907), Kinsmen's Clay (1910), Bridget Considine (1914), Escapade (1917), Rekindled Fires (1929), and The Old Road (1929)—I know nothing thus far apart from their titles. The present novel is dedicated, for what it's worth, to Helen Beauclerk, another writer on my list, whom I haven't yet read either but who is somewhat more well-known than Crosbie (everything is relative, but Beauclerk had at least a couple of modest bestsellers, which does not appear to have been the case with Crosbie).
Researcher John Herrington was able to track down some of the details of Crosbie's life—born in Lancashire in 1876, real name Muriel Maud Dolley (or D'Oyley in some records), unclear if Crosbie was a married name or a pseudonym, though John found no record of a marriage, lived in Liverpool as a young woman, died 1958. Which still leaves quite a few gaps and makes me wonder what experiences in her life might have led her to the dramatic plot of There and Back Again.
Ultimately, I decided to go ahead and write about the novel, despite the fact that it's not one of my favorites. Because even if I didn't love it, it really is quite interesting. It's a literary novel, and the fact that what has been a very personal sort of novel of family relationships is suddenly disrupted—nearly three quarters of the way through—by the outbreak of World War I gives it a unique and intriguing structure. Crosbie even perhaps has a bit in common with writers like Winifred Holtby, who also explored the Great War and its impacts on personal relationships in a serious, literary way.
The novel focuses on Catherine Aysgarth, a wife and mother whose peculiar situation is described early on:
She was married at seventeen. This is fact, not a means of accounting for her grown-up children. She came from an Irish schoolroom to that northern home of Vincent Aysgarth's between the moors and the hills, with the passion of her young marriage alight and her coltish ardors at their spring. Ignorant, and reckoning all experience in terms of emotion, and all feeling as having a moral content, as the Victorians always did (the italics of their parents being still warm upon the air) she came to Dallas, gave her husband three children in four years and two years later left him—left him in so far that she left undone all conjugal duty, though she never in the phrase of the day "deceived" him. She bought Ardenac with old Aunt Alicia's money and henceforth spent more than half the year away from husband, home and children, gathering around her friends who, whatever their other limitations, were not careful with the Aysgarth cares nor dense with the Aysgarth density.
Of her children, she took only Val with her when she made her escape, because "even at the age of five Val had a will and a loud cry. Toby, aged four, was docile. Fortune, aged two, was inarticulate. But Val could and did assert herself." And as the novel opens, Catherine, now in her forties, has returned to the fold because Val—perhaps tasting a touch too fully of her mother's urge for freedom—has run a bit wild, had an affair (about which we hear little but receive nevertheless a clear impression that Val is now viewed as damaged goods), and finally, most tragically, has lost her vision in an automobile accident.
The novel centers around Catherine's gradual reacclimation to the demands of her now-grown family, and around Val's bitterness and gradual coming to terms with her disability. Catherine attempts to intervene when Toby seduces a married woman, and Val has romances with two different men, both of whom were first interested in her mother (a fact which seems to arouse, by turns, Val's satisfaction and her resentment) and both of whom now seem to love Val as much for her tragic air and her association with Catherine as for her true self. And finally, the latter portion of the novel centers around the onslaught of World War I and its attendant calamities.
There and Back Again has many strengths, not least of which is its elegant, sometimes almost archaic prose, which, combined with its focus on an eccentric, tragic family, makes me wonder if Crosbie might have been influenced by Faulkner (whom I also mentioned in relation to Ena Limebeer, come to think of it). Even such a trivial musing as this one, about a widowed neighbor woman, manages to evoke a deeper sadness:
There was a little Georgian house at the edge of the village, flat-faced, with a scallop-shell porch over the door and close-clipped ivy around its windows. It was known locally as Miss Lavinia's, though Miss Lavinia had been dead thirty years. For just so long, her mousey little widowed sister had lived there, without impressing her personality on the house or the village. Mrs. Barlow-up-at-Miss Lavinia's was the name by which her neighbors knew her till she died.
The effects of the war on Catherine's emotional self are eloquently and effectively described, and there's a particular passage—in which Val recalls to Catherine their time in the Paris of the early modernist period—which I can't help quoting as it made me yearn to have been there (though not necessarily in the company of Catherine and Val):
"D'you remember the first Indépendent, Mother? Or the first we saw anyway. In a big tent in the Cours la Reine. Doesn't it seem ages ago? Women with mauve hair and green faces were new then, and to talk rhythm and planes instead of line and color was new too. Was it there that we saw the first Archipenko statues-that Venus with the square breasts?"
"Why, yes, before your time, Edward. You'd never have taken me to the Cigale on Montmartre and stayed there till we turned out to wander down to the Halles. Oh, the smell of the morning! The flowers and the clean streets and the market carts !" She laughed, and then sang out, "Cigares, cigarettes, bonbons, toutes les photographies," with the program seller's twang. "And the winter of the floods! When the Gare St. Lazare was awash and the new Tube under the river, too; it smelt like the bottom of a pond for months afterwards. The river was yellow, carrying along with it trees and broken boats, and the sky was yellow, too, lying close to the tops of the houses, and the Quais were yellow with dirty snow. And there was talk of blowing up the Pont d'Alma, and everybody walked over it 'for the last time.' And that night there was a big clap of thunder and some newspaper man, without going to see, wired to London that the bridge had been blown up."
According to Wikipedia, the Salon des Indépendants was only held at the Cours-la-Reine from 1901 to 1907, so this helps to date the scene Val is recalling. In 1906, one of the major paintings would have been Henri Matisse's Joy of Living, below—it's only loosely relevant to this post, but it adds a splash of cheerful color to an otherwise image-less post. Oh, for a time machine to travel back to the exhibition (and perhaps pick up one or two or a dozen Picassos and Cezannes for a few francs each along the way)!
|Henri Matisse's Joy of Living, from the 1906 Salon des Indépendants|
There's little enough of humor in this novel, though there was one passage that jumped out at me, about the arrival of Isabella, an elderly spinster aunt:
Isabella's eyes roved over the gilt cornices and paused on the lustered chandelier. She might have been noting the imperfection of housemaids or inquiring the Divine will.
So why didn't I love the novel? Initially, I thought I would—I read the first third or so in greedy gulps. But by then, the idealization of Catherine by many of the characters—especially the fawning Arthur, who has adored her in France and now, apparently having no life of his own, keeps coming for long visits during which he follows her around like a puppy—started to wear on me:
Arthur, carrying his weight of talk unspent, thought, "Catherine is changed." He could not tell where the difference lay, but it somehow affronted him. The legend of Catherine that Ardenac made was romantic with the romanticism of the eighteen nineties, but it was very comfortable. Catherine, whose silence had the spacious freshness of hilltop air—Catherine who fled from Life—the capital letter sort of life—but gave rest and a hearth fire and food for body and mind to those who lived it; Catherine, auditor not actor, and therefore interested, kind, ironic, observant, detached, forever almost within reach and forever at a safe distance.
Arthur's views of Catherine—and, at times, the perspective on her offered by Val and Toby and even Vincent, the husband she abandoned—reminded me of Nick's view of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. A sort of hero-worship which, in Gatsby, is presented ironically—in the sense that the reader fairly quickly realizes that Nick is a nitwit and one needn't take his idealizations at face value. But here, while Arthur is pretty clearly a nitwit too, the other characters aren't, and ultimately it seems that the reader is supposed to really believe that Catherine is a superior sort of being, too advanced for earthly cares, and to feel that perhaps the final surrendering of her hard-won freedom that comes with the arrival of World War I is a sad comedown for such a romantically exotic figure. But unfortunately, I could never quite see what the characters—and apparently Crosbie herself—were seeing in Catherine. I didn't dislike her, but I was never affected by the mystique that supposedly surrounded her. And that kept me at a bit of a distance from the novel. Perhaps as in Rebecca, with which I have confessed my similar inability to engage, you have to buy into the supposed romantic splendor of a character (and in this case a living, breathing one, which makes it even more challenging to pull off) in order to accept the other characters as anything less than moderately mad. I seem to be altogether too unromantic to view any of my fellow humans as astonishing, brilliant, beautiful demi-gods—more's the pity, perhaps.
In fact, for me, in an odd sort of way There and Back Again came to seem like a cross between a Faulknerian family saga and a Mills & Boon romance. When Catherine finds herself enmeshed—this time, it seems, permanently—in her family and its day-to-day life, I wondered if perhaps women readers of the time were merely supposed to have identified with her, to have imagined themselves as similarly romantic free spirits tragically tamed? But perhaps this is just my own limitations as a reader. There's no doubt this was intended to be a serious novel, and there's likewise no doubt that Crosbie treated her themes elegantly. I wonder if some of you might really quite like the book, and if so I would be delighted if a smarter and more careful or sensitive reader would show me everything that I've missed.
Perhaps some of what I've missed lies in this brilliantly odd passage near the end of the novel. On the surface, it's about a chicken—not often considered a romantic demi-god of a bird—but here it certainly seems to evoke a bit more than mere poultry, coming as it does in a novel about a mother who has abandoned her brood:
Martin came one day when she was in the barn, debating with Amos Cliff the prospects of a sitting hen. This was a small peevish bird, called Ophelia, because she seemed madder than most hens. Having declined to brood in spring, she was seized with maternal fervor at midsummer, and three several private nests of hers had been broken up by Amos. But she was as persevering as she was peevish, and at last her obstinacy won her the seclusion of an empty whisky case, in which she now sat with thirteen eggs more or less underneath her. She churred fretfully when Amos lifted her out of the box and scattered a handful of oats on the ground before her. But after stretching first one wing and then the other discontentedly she began to feed with darting haste.
At the least, it's a lovely description. At the most…?