I added Elaine Howis to my Overwhelming List a few months ago, and mentioned her in a post in September, noting that reviews of her small and concentrated literary output (four short novels and one story collection, all in the course of five years when she was in her late fifties, after which she fell silent for the remaining four decades of her impressive century-plus life span) suggested an affinity with Virginia Woolf. A couple of weeks ago, I spontaneously made an interlibrary loan request for this, her second novel (don't ask why I started with the second—I have no idea).
As soon as I picked the book up from the library, I fell in love with it. By which I mean that, for better or worse, I fell in love with the book itself—the cutest, loveliest book you could ever imagine. Beautiful blue covers, a compact size, large reader-friendly text—all of which predisposed me in the book's favor. It was published by J. M. Dent, and it's an adorable, fetishizable volume (those of you who don't care how a book looks and feels in your hands—could there be such readers?—please skim ahead a bit), and one that seemed to be in the same condition, after nearly 60 years in a library, as it must have been fresh off a bookstore shelf in 1957. In fact, it made me lapse into quite a little revery about how much my feelings about a given book might be impacted by the quality of the book itself—the physical object, its design, and the work that went into it, quite apart from the work of the author. I have always known myself to have a tendency to judge a book by its cover, but this book brought me to new levels.
I was so infatuated that I have to include here a color scan of two sample pages (from very early in the novel, so no spoilers) and a pic of the book posed seductively on our coffee table—where, indeed, it rather looks like it should take up permanent residency.
Moving on to the actual content of the book, the plot revolves around a handful of residents of a precarious cliffside above a small English village, and their tense interactions with one another. There is Shale, a widow whose husband was found, not too long ago, dead at the bottom of a cliff, and who spends much of her time sitting in her secret garden staring into her unkempt lily pond. There's Ronald, who has carefully studied the art of being a gentleman (including surrepticiously acquiring the complete works of Beatrix Potter after they're mentioned in passing one day as part of a shared upper-class culture), and whose determination to make even his private behaviors correspond to his views of gentility may be represented in the book by the sterile order of his house:
Ronald pulled the curtains forward with a little feminine flourish. He realised he was becoming pernickety, and did not mind. Observing so much, he saw that men living alone usually fell into one of two extremes. Either they dug, at will, the sardines out of their native tin-or they decanted them into a silver dish. Ronald decanted them into a silver dish.
There's Lionel and Laura Blair, a married couple who have lived now for years at the local inn. Though purportedly they are searching for a house, in fact they are unable to commit and are content to take over the Smugglers' Tavern, gradually infiltrating it with their own décor. And making occasional brief but meaningful appearances are the tavern's widowed owner, Mrs. Galloway, who keeps her distance from the residents and feels distinctly superior to her current position in life, and Daisy Bell, the barmaid, who proceeds through life with the simplest possible concepts of life and relationships, her mantra being to "jolly the gentlemen along."
And then there's Gemmi, a young woman delighting in living alone for the first time, who has recently taken over her cousin Isabella's house and who—perhaps fatefully—decides to investigate her Isabella's sudden decision to leave the village, which might have to do with the suspicion that she stole Shale's diamond ring during a party (and with the fact that Shale's recently-deceased husband may have been enamored of her). This decision forms the backdrop of the neighbors' relations, a sort of mystery that—while first seeming too trivial to sustain a novel—gradually leads to other, deeper and more disturbing revelations.
There's an almost fable-like simplicity to Howis's setting—three houses perched precariously on the side of a cliff and isolated from any other villagers. And if the final revelation is perhaps not entirely convincing and just a bit too melodramatic, it's the quality of fable that saves it. Fables don't have to be realistic in the way that other kinds of stories do. They only have to make sense within the odd world a storyteller has created, and The Lily Pond does that quite well.
Howis possesses a subtle, slightly edgy humor that I very much enjoyed. Here is one of my favorite passages, about the tavern owner who feels she deserves better:
Mrs Galloway stood near the door. Her posture was time honoured. So had stood that innumerable band of women forced by circumstances into positions other than the ones they considered life owed them. Governesses, and third cousins of dukes, and impoverished widows of great men, and parsons' daughters. One pities them. One also pities, perhaps, their employers.
And here, Daisy's lack of experience with men is made funny with the addition of one prefix in the last line:
Daisy Bell had a deep knowledge of men, but no interpretation of that knowledge. Irony was not in her. She had heard those words many, many times; from tall men and short men, from fat men and thin men, and men with red faces, and men with grey faces, and men with moustaches, and men without moustaches; and every time she heard them her heart welled up in sympathy and misunderstanding and spilled over.
Ah, to have a listener to one's moanings whose heart wells up in sympathy and misunderstanding!
One of the things Howis does brilliantly, too, is metaphor. She is lavish with metaphors, sometimes quite elaborate ones, and I found myself trying to memorize some of them for later recollection in appropriate situations (most being too extended to be practical for actually repeating in real life scenarios). Here's one of my favorites, again about Ronald:
The second thing that worried him was Gemmi's insistence on knowing why her cousin Isabella wished to leave Weymon Cove. Ask Laura, he had said. If Gemmi had been less obstinate he would not have been forced to say it. He did not want to throw Isabella or Laura to the wolves. No one could say he was a man who did not scruple to throw his friends to the wolves. He did scruple. (But in the end he threw them, and the wolves devoured them.) He was a kind man if he was only given a chance; and sometimes he was given it and sometimes he was not. He was like a shipwrecked mariner adrift on an open raft. If there was enough room for himself, enough food, enough water, he would save those poor drowning bodies, listen to their beseeching cries. But if there was not-what could he do? He had no choice. Sail on. Sail on.
All in all, The Lily Pond is a charmingly elegant book, the kind one feels one should be reading in a cozy modern chair by a window overlooking dramatic scenery—or at the very least in a sophisticated cafe. In some ways, it feels like the perfect middlebrow novel—secrets, sophisticated intellectual characters, a touch of melodrama, and just enough opacity in its elegant, seductive prose to make it feel quite literary, almost experimental or modernist, but not so difficult or inaccessible as the really high-brow fiction of its day.
On the other hand, I wonder if it might have rather more depth than at first appears. (Anita Brookner's recent obituary—sad news, though Brookner started writing too late to be included in my list—cited a comment of Hilary Mantel's to the effect that Brookner was "the sort of artist described as minor by people who read her books only once." Is Howis also that sort of artist, I wonder?) I was interested by the fact that, while the novel does evoke Woolf—perhaps especially in the central symbol of Shale's lily pond, which occupies a central, almost mystical position in the book that's not unlike that of Woolf's lighthouse—it also felt peculiarly modern to me, almost like something that could occupy a bookstore shelf next to Shirley Hazzard or Michael Ondaatje. At any rate, I think many of you, especially fans of Pamela Frankau, for instance, or the better-known Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Bowen, or even the aforementioned Woolf, might quite like Howis.