"Come along in, Gilbert, and tell Mrs. Blair you're sorry we're late!"
Everyone watched her turn aside at the doorway, which now awaited the entry of her brother. A shadow fell across the little light-painted passage, and a man stood in the doorway. At that moment, the sun slipped finally behind the houses opposite: the warm gold of the indolent summer afternoon drained away, to be replaced by the first chill of the imminent night. The room, suddenly dark, became darker as Gilbert Fell, a dark man in a dark suit, stood there.
This wonderfully portentous (and, presumably, a bit satirical) passage could almost come from a Muriel Spark novel, or even a Barbara Pym. Alas, however, despite some other charming elements, The Disastrous Visit doesn't live up to this potential. Since last August, I've read all six of Gwenllian Meyrick's novels, which typically combine a dash of humor, some light melodrama, likeable and believable characters (particularly women), and much domesticity in a recipe that I've obviously found irresistible despite some ambivalence (see my previous reviews of Meyrick here). Sadly, however, The Disastrous Visit proved to be, for me, the dregs of her work.
Susan Lockhart works in an antique shop, where she is devoted (at least) to her married employee, and has lived for eight years with her widowed father William, a Civil Servant with a genealogy hobby, in a house owned by William's sister-in-law, Bertha Blair, a businesswoman who has been conveniently out of the way in Australia for many years. Susan also occasionally spends time with Robert Neville, a close friend and occasional flirtation.
|A bad photo of a terrible cover: is it|
just me or does Bertha look rather
like a beekeeper here?
As the novel opens, Susan and her father have just received the news that Bertha is moving back to England to open a new business and will be living with them. She arrives almost immediately after, well before they expect her, and Susan frets about the disruption to their contented lives. And disruption it turns out to be, as Bertha remodels the house, dividing it into three flats, and invites Kitty Fell and her ominous brother Gilbert from the passage above to live in the basement and be partners in her business. At a party, she also spontaneously invites Branwell Swift, a pompously bleak and self-righteous bestselling novelist (and, pseudonymously, magazine romance writer), to take the upstairs flat with his wishy-washy son Adrian.
It seems like The Disastrous Visit couldn't quite decide if it was a comedy about the disconcerting disruptions of an eccentric aunt, or a crime novel, or a romance (though the ending very much comes down on the side of the most gushing, rather embarrassing romance). The attempt at a vaguely suspenseful subplot involving the Fells didn't work at all for me—it reminded me a bit of one of Agatha Christie's late novels about vague conspiracies and vague dastardly deeds. Plus, by comparison with most of Meyrick's other heroines, Susan comes across as a bit shrill and intolerant in her superiority over everyone else, and Bertha is certainly not one of Meyrick's strong women characters, so one of the main strengths of her other novels is completely missing here.
About the only highlight here is Meyrick's implicit commentary on Branwell Swift's style and methods of writing. This passage, for example, surely reflects some of Meyrick's feelings about the grittier types of fiction that had come into fashion in the 1950s:
"I start with a character," said Branwell, warming to his favourite subject, "someone who is maladjusted or mentally twisted or unhappy or perverted. Then I think of another person with a different abnormal characteristic, throw them together, add one or two more characters, and let the book write itself."
"You don't ever write about normal people?"
"Oh, no, my dear girl. Ordinary people are of no interest to intellectuals."
"Nor happy people?"
"Of course not!" Bran well was shocked. "There is nothing to say about them. Besides, I should never get any reviews."
And surely that little comment about not getting reviews must have been a bit of Meyrick's own frustration coming out, as it seems that her books only rarely got significant critical attention.
Fortunately, Shed No Tear, the last of Meyrick's novels (both the last that I hadn't read and the last she published) was far more satisfying. It might not be on a parr with some of the very best of her work, but it was great fun anyway. It has all the elements of a romantic melodrama, which ought to have been irritating and dull for me, but as in most of her books, Meyrick's characters are so well-defined and wholly realistic that it all seems surprisingly fresh. Again Dorothy Whipple came to mind as the closest comparison, though it's not a precise one, but there's a similar sort of surprising depth brought to even very basic, somewhat clichéd plots.
The novel opens at the wedding of Catherine Lane and Hugo Thornton, at which we overhear some of the wedding guests discussing what a mistake Catherine is making. Hugo, it seems, is a slightly shady character, who has been carrying on with a married woman while flirting with other girls. Everyone seems to be in agreement that she should have married Richard Gibson, a young man who's clearly in love with her but also thoroughly cowed by his mother.
After the wedding scene, we flash back to 20-year-old Catherine's first meeting with Hugo, when she first moves to London to attend art school and share a flat with two girlfriends. Hugo is a charmer, who quickly flits from one of Catherine's roommates to Catherine herself, causing bitterness that lingers well into the novel, but Catherine also hears (and ignores) rumors of his married lover. The two marry, quickly have two children, and are blissfully happy. For a time. But of course the "other woman" lingers in the background.
In part the reason that Shed No Tear is so much more entertaining than The Disastrous Visit is that here we do get the interesting women who are such a wonderful characteristic of most of Meyrick's work. There's Catherine's mother, an acclaimed artist who is perpetually absorbed in her own work and disarmingly unconventional in her perspectives, and Milly (Mrs Mills), who was evacuated with two young daughters during World War II and has remained ever since, her daughters long since married and moved away. Milly is Mrs Lane's staunchest ally and protector of her sacred artistry ("Mrs. Lane's a real artist," says Milly. "You see, she's got no conscience"), as well as a sort of second mother to Catherine. To some extent, when we finally meet her near the end of the novel, the ubiquitous Mrs Seymour, the "other woman", also qualifies. All are intriguing women (of a certain age) who think for themselves, are practical and motivated, and do not define themselves by their relationships with men (even when, as with Mrs Seymour, they quite enjoy such relationships). And I have to add that even Catherine, who at first seems like rather a wet dishmop and an unfortunate choice of heroine, finds some surprising strength of will by the end of the novel, and there is some real satisfaction in seeing her development
The ending of this novel is not entirely satisfactory—Meyrick does seem to have trouble with her "happy ever after" endings, which in today's climate aren't always unproblematic. Many readers would likely find it difficult to be completely ecstatic for Catherine here. On the other hand, plot-wise, Meyrick manages to be just a bit surprising in the end, and it's hard not to think that Catherine has come a long way in an intriguing direction. I rather wish Meyrick had revisited her in a subsequent novel to show us where she gets to.
On a sort of side topic, the portrayal of Catherine's mother—like that of Branwell Swift in The Disastrous Visit—is intriguing for what it might suggest about Meyrick's view of creative artists. For her, her work is above virtually all else (though in the end we do see her maternal instincts kick in as well, so she is by no means inhuman). I was entertained by her arguments against Catherine's marriage:
"You are twenty," she said. "You have the makings of a good artist. You have the ability, the temperament. You want to give it all up to become a suburban housewife in a little box of a house."
"Perhaps you'd rather I just lived with him then," retorted Catherine. "It's quite an ordinary thing to do nowadays. I'm always hearing of it."
"That certainly might be less disturbing for your work," said Mrs. Lane thoughtfully.
Catherine was shocked. If one of her friends had said it, she would have accepted it as typical of their generation. But mothers were different. Her friends would laugh indulgently at their limited outlook and their old-fashioned approach to life, but she herself envied girls who had such mothers. It gave them stability and something to fight against when they wanted freedom. Catherine had always had freedom. There had never been anything for her to fight against, and she often felt that this was a big gap in her life.
Catherine pushed her fingers through her hair restlessly. "At least we're more natural," she said.
"Certainly. But it's not particularly difficult to be natural. Even the most elementary forms of life are quite good at it."
One wonders how Mrs Lane would have coped had Mr Lane not been killed in the war when Catherine was just a baby, and had Milly not come to live with them around the same time—a baby doesn't tend to wait till a painting is finished before demanding its dinner!
And then there's Milly's observation later on in the novel:
Milly sighed. "Seems to me," she said, twisting the gaudy beads round her neck, "that there are two sorts of artists. There are the ones who recognise they've got obligations towards other people—husbands to look after, or wives to support, or children to bring up—and they're always in a state, trying to follow their art and do what they should for other people. The other sort are the lucky ones who don't have a choice to make. Ones like your Mum, who just go straight for their art and never think of anyone else. No worries for them, no cutting themselves in two all the time."
This passage particularly struck me because I can't help wondering if Meyrick was, to some extent, bemoaning the fact that she is not one of those people. She was, I suspect, one of those people for whom continuing with their art is a struggle and a balancing act. And just perhaps this passage gives some insight into why Shed No Tear wound up as Meyrick's final novel, though she lived another 36 years. Against the Stream, her earlier novel, was focused on a woman trying to balance a satisfying career with her family life, so we know she had given it all considerable thought. Perhaps the "cutting themselves in two all the time" finally became too much?
So, that's that as far as my reading of Meyrick goes. Always rather bittersweet when I finish reading an author I like.
One of the things that first attracted me to Meyrick were some of the distinctive dustjackets her publisher created, and I'm happy that my copy of Shed No Tear came complete with a beautifully-preserved example of them, but that's not really the most exciting part. My copy also arrived with Meyrick's signature on the title page, which is a lovely added touch. And, as I'm one of those people who enjoy old inscriptions inside the front cover, I also liked the original gift inscription from 1961.
I had never so much as glimpsed a copy of that book's cover, and it's absolutely gorgeous, even if Ann and I are in agreement that the characters don't quite look like we imagined them (and we're also in agreement in our enjoyment of that novel). Thanks for sending this along, Ann, and for letting me share it here!