'As soon as you're born,' Alice said, 'they dress you and say it's a dear little girl, and when you die they talk about the corpse, and in between you lead this extraordinary life and pretend that things are important and are going to go on for ever.'
Now, if I say that this rather alarming statement from the eponymous Alice effectively sums up Alice (1950), the first of five novels written by Elizabeth Eliot—better known by the time of her death in 1991 for the non-fiction Heiresses and Coronets (1959, published in the U.K. as They All Married Well), about prominent Edwardian European/American marriages—then you may not believe me when I also say that it's one of the funniest, strangest, and most addictive novels I've read in a long time.
The delightfully morbid story of—well, very little in fact beyond the strange and often woeful domestic lives of Margaret, the narrator, and her friend Alice from their final year at boarding school in the late 1920s to their mid-20s or so with the Spanish Civil War in the background and global war on the horizon, Alice shares a family resemblance with several of my favorite novels, from Barbara Comyns' Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead to Rachel Ferguson's The Brontës Went to Woolworth's. And yet it's also completely its own thing.
|The book was apparently a Book Society choice, not bad for a debut novel.|
Alice and Margaret love nothing so much as imagining the pain and suffering of others, or even the pain and suffering that might be their own lot in the future. But their existential ponderings (and indeed there is a surprising amount of philosophical depth here, and an ongoing trope about fear as a primary motivator, which lends a somewhat eerie seriousness to the characters' otherwise often superficial and odd behavior) are both hilarious and tragic, witty and melancholy, a delicate balance that Eliot manages to maintain in a rather extraordinary way throughout. Even when imagining the labor of servants long retired or dead, their loopy imaginings are rather dark:
The next day Alice showed me over the house. We walked for miles up and down staircases and through deserted rooms. We paused in the front hall with its pillars and its white marble floor. Alice opened the shutters of one of the windows.
'It's lucky we don't use this as a hall now, isn't it?' she asked.
'Imagine if it had to be scrubbed every day. It would take hours. Nanny says that when she was a young girl housemaids used to get up at four in the morning. It's not surprising when one thinks what they had to do.'
We contemplated the floor, thinking with sympathy of the Victorian housemaids who had scrubbed it.
'Though perhaps it was the odd man,' Alice said more brightly, and for the sake of the housemaids we were glad.
In fact, in an ironic way, the servants come to symbolize freedom for Eliot's young women, trapped inside their regimented high-class lives:
Personally I never found anything about the servants squalid, but always most interesting. Besides, one learnt so much more about people when one was disagreeing with them, and compared with us the servants had unbelievably exciting lives. Their world was boundless, while ours was contained within such narrow limits.
But the servants! Anything might happen to them. They might go in a train to Woolwich and meet the love of their lives, or be murdered almost for the asking. Not that one wanted to be murdered exactly, but there was frustration in being denied the possibility.
Then another thing, the servants could give notice and a month later they would be living in a different house surrounded with quite different people, and the love of their lives lurking round the corner perhaps, or beside the bandstand on a summer evening.
Alice marries, unhappily, and faces many other adventures and hardships, involving Margaret in most of them, until she suddenly decides—with fabulous success—to become an actress. Other characters come and go, but one feels that the point is not so much the events themselves as the quirky ways in which Margaret and Alice handle and discuss the events. And a good deal of the morbidity of their thinking seems to stem in part from an underlying sense of radical instability in their world. The narrator's grandmother's maid, for example, fears that a boat they're travelling in will suddenly stop floating—"Not because anything had gone wrong with it, you know, but because the rules about what could float and what couldn't had suddenly altered." These are anxious characters who feel marooned in the world without any safe harbor—a tragic circumstance, no doubt, and one probably based in class changes in postwar Britain, but, in Eliot's hands, it's an absolutely hilarious one.
|One case where the American cover|
is definitely inferior to the British edition
She also has a wonderful flare with metaphor, which adds to the humor of her tale. Here's one of my favorite examples:
'Darling! and how do you feel?' Mrs. Norton, in her usual flowered evening dress, rushed at her daughter and kissed her. One was reminded of a black and white hen hurrying across a farmyard with its wings outstretched.
And then there's just a fair amount of giddy silliness, as in this one final quotation, which doesn't even require any setup or scene-setting:
Felix turned on the waiter, who still stood in the doorway.
'Who's responsible for this food, what?'
'It's sent up from the kitchens, sir.' Williams remained imperturbable, disinterested. One felt that had the kitchens chosen to send up nothing but potato peelings he would have served them with detachment and without comment.
I loved Alice so much that I had to find another of Eliot's books, and, rather astonishingly, it turned out that our local public library had a copy of her second novel, Henry, published later the same year as Alice.
|And here's a case of the American edition|
being superior (see below)
Henry has quite a lot of similarities to Alice—a first person narrator observing and admiring a problematic character (in this case, her brother), and making marvelous daft/brilliant observations of the events and people around them. I already mentioned Barbara Comyns and Rachel Ferguson among the authors Eliot has reminded me of. I don't know if Henry's tone was actually darker and more disturbing than Alice, or if I merely started to notice the subtexts a bit more, but while reading this one I found myself thinking of writers such as Shirley Jackson and J. D. Salinger, with perhaps a little Sylvia Plath thrown in (I wonder why I thought of American authors this time around?).
I made a note, too, that the wit in Henry reveals more uncomfortably familiar truths about love and dysfunctional families, and about what gets called love though it's really composed most of fear or power or weakness. What can be better than a hilariously entertaining novel that also makes you think and realize things about yourself?
|Admittedly a terrible photo, but I think|
the cover in general is a little bland
This exchange between Anne and her mother, after Anne has threatened to go out to work in order to gain her independence, makes relatively explicit the instability of the characters' social world:
I told her that I had done quite a lot of typing in the W.R.N.S., when I wasn't driving a lorry, and that I would learn shorthand in the evenings.
'The papers are full of advertisements for secretaries and junior typists. So I don't expect people will be as particular as they used to be.'
Mother said that standards were certainly going down, and that 'they' were forcing 'us' out of existence.
And my mother had looked mournfully round the drawing room. 'They' had prevented her renewing the faded chintz covers, and also, presumably, buying a new castor for one of the armchairs.
Here, I think, is an absolute truth about human relations placed into a tidy nutshell:
'I'm sure he's charming,' Gerald said politely.
I hoped that when he did meet him Gerald really would find that Henry was charming or, at any rate, interesting. Of course, Henry was a human being and human beings were always interesting.
People were quite different. They overcrowded the buses and they created queues.
And here is a memorable summing-up of a core principle of Plato's philosophy:
I heard the word, 'Plato,' and remembered that Plato had said that human souls had once been round and that at a given moment they had broken into two and spent the rest of their existence looking for their other half; like in a cotillion.
I'm giggling again just inserting the quote here, and you can bet I'm already planning to move on to Eliot's three other novels—Mrs. Martell (1953), Starter's Orders (1955), and Cecil (1962). In fact, I'll leave you with this evocative image of my Eliot-related interlibrary loan and purchasing excesses: