Friday, October 19, 2018

Two novels of childhood: GERALDINE SYMONS, The Suckling (1969) & ORIEL MALET, My Bird Sings (1945)

Here are two interesting novels for adults, distinctly odd and yet completely distinct from one another, about the joys and traumas of childhood. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a subgenre I very much enjoy—books along the lines of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer or Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy or, my favorite discovery of 2017, Marjorie Dixon’s The Red Centaur (see here). Neither of these quite live up to those books, but I enjoyed them both. However, I didn’t get round to making notes on either of them until a while after I read them, by which time my memory of details might have got a bit hazy around the edges, so I’m including brief(-ish) discussions of both in one post.

The Suckling is a quirky little novel about an overly imaginative little girl, Hattie Suckling, living in France with her parents and struggling to comprehend the bewildering conflicts of culture, religion, class, and morality that she is forever encountering. Her father Sebastian is an author who is always musing to Hattie about the darker side of life, which she largely misunderstands and incorporates into her vivid inner world—sometimes unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Her mother Rose, by contrast, is traditional and conservative and wishes they were back in England leading a civilized life rather than in a coastal village in France because Sebastian needs a quiet place to write. (It’s a bit difficult to see how Rose and Sebastian would have come to be married in the first place, but opposites do attract sometimes, and we are seeing them in the novel after the bloom is off the rose a bit.)

Symons is best known for her children’s books, and at times The Suckling reads very much like a novel by an author more comfortable writing for children. By and large, though, this seems an advantage for a story concerned with childish perceptions and misperceptions. Here’s a favorite passage combining Symons’ sense of humor and an example of Hattie’s incomprehension of adult attitudes and metaphors:

'Is it wrong to make candles?'

'Of course not, but people who do shouldn't have yachts, so your mother thinks. Everyone should stay in their own pigeon-hole and not try to escape.'

'Are we in our hole?'

'She says not, that I'm dragging us out of the damn' thing.'

There was silence for a moment as Hattie chewed over the extraordinary picture that Father's words had produced. Thrusting her fingers through her fringe, she asked 'Where to?'

'Down into a proletarian quagmire of Bohemian debauchery.'

'What's a quagmire?'

'A quaking bog.' Dropping the melon on Hattie's wound, Father went downstairs to dejeuner, which Mother called 'dinner'.

Messing about with the rest of her mince which she didn't want, Hattie saw Father dragging her and Mother down into a quaking bog which shook and bubbled like boiling chocolate.

(I’m also always interested by examples of the uses of varying terms for our daily meals. Reams could surely be—and probably have—been written about all the distinctions of class and culture concealed by these terms, and it’s entirely appropriate that Rose, fiercely English, would refuse to let “dejeuner” pass her lips—so to speak.)

The central trauma of the novel for Hattie is her belief, stemming from a series of misunderstandings and vivid fantasies, that she has murdered a fisherman, whom her father told her jokingly to push from the sea wall into the water. Her tendency to immediately imagine the bewildering things her father says, and the bizarre chance by which the fisherman soon after dies of a heart attack, create a certainty in Hattie that she is responsible for his death.

This was an interesting, sometimes touching, sometimes funny evocation of a child's mind and her efforts to figure out the hopelessly enigmatic world around her. Probably not a “must read” but great fun for fans of the genre.

The Suckling was the last of only three adult novels by Symons, who is best known for her series of children's titles about Pansy and Atalanta, which include Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges (1972) and Mademoiselle (1973). I think I really need to get round to one of those books. And I'm also a fan of Crocuses Were Over, Hitler Was Dead (1977) (the original British title, Now and Then, is just too boring to use), a time slip story in which a young contemporary girl (i.e. 1970s) staying on a country estate slips repeatedly back to the estate's WWII days. She seems to have published only one other children's title, Second Cousins, Once Removed (1978), after Crocuses, though she didn't die until 1997. Her other two adult novels were All Souls (1950), which appears to be a family saga, and French Windows (1952), about which I have no details. Her memoir, Children in the Close (1959), about her childhood in the Close of Salisbury Cathedral, might also be of interest (would she have known Edith Olivier, I wonder? I don’t recall exactly when Olivier lived in Salisbury, but surely around the same time).

The other of these two odd little books became an absolute obsession for me during the two or three days I was reading it, but having not made notes on it at the time I find that I can remember very little about it. Which is certainly a testament to my ditziness as a reader, but it’s also rather appropriate to a story permeated by a dreamy ethereality. I lived in it as vividly as in a dream, and then promptly forgot it on awakening.

This was the second novel by Oriel Malet, an author some of you must already know for her third, the Persephone-reprinted Marjory Fleming (1946). And I also see that I previously wrote briefly about her one children’s title, Beginner’s Luck (1952) (see here), way back in the early days of this blog. Malet specialized in writing about young girls—all the reviews I can find of her eight novels suggest that she never varied much in her protagonists. Which, since she seems to have handled her subject matter effectively, makes her a potentially rich source of future reading material.

My Bird Sings is set in a sort of fairy tale 19th century. There's a castle on the Loire, an eerie puppetmaster who seems along the lines of Fate itself (perhaps just a bit too much of him and his puppets, in fact, for my taste), and three little girls in a magical countryside. And it’s just possible that all of this is the dream or daydream of a young girl about to be married, who appears in a prologue and epilogue. But the three girls are quite dreamy enough in their own right:

She turned abruptly away and came close, close to the mirror, so that her light breath seemed to cloud it. Running her finger gently across the cracked flowers, she spoke softly, dreamily, as if to herself. "There's someone in the mirror coming towards us. And then perhaps we shall be free. Someone all in white, like a princess, or like mother that day she put on her wedding dress for us. I can see her now, coming between the trees with her arms full of Bowers, and singing. I think she has the key of the castle in her hand."

Now admittedly, I would ordinarily find it hard to suppress a guffaw at such a passage, but I can only say that, for me, while I was reading the novel, Malet managed to make her fairy tale world come to magical life, guffaw-free.

The girls' lives are changed by the arrival, foretold by the mirror, of the beautiful Mélanie (who has left behind a brilliant singing career) and her newly-wed husband Charles de Chancerey, and everything works itself out tidily.

Despite the fact that I can recall no very compelling details about My Bird Sings, I’m definitely planning to read more of Malet in the future. In fact, immediately after finishing it, I nabbed a library copy of Marjory Fleming and made a valiant attempt at it. But somehow the magic didn’t take over again, and it seemed stiff and awkward by comparison to this one. I’ll have to attempt it again some day—perhaps it was just too much Malet all at once. I’ve also nabbed a copy of Jam Today (1957), Malet’s memoir of living in Paris in her youth, which just sounded too irresistible to pass up. Has anyone read that one?
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