Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s (1928)

One of the first reviews of Edith Olivier’s second novel appeared in the Times and read:

Miss Olivier’s well-written and accomplished story leaves the reader in some perplexity.  Its heroine is a girl who is brought up ‘not to call her soul her own.’ With her parents (and grandmother) she is ‘a charmingly lifeless being’, they ‘never saw her without her mask of good manners’. ‘The real questions were whether by now the mask had not grown so close to the face that it would never come off; and if it did, whether the face beneath would have taken for ever that vapid mould.’ The rest of the book is the answer to this question in the affirmative.

Jane’s weakness, if we could see that it was inevitable, would be tragic, but as it is it is only exasperating.

Frontispiece of U.S. first edition
There were better reviews to come, and Olivier’s publisher was so impressed with the novel that he predicted (incorrectly) that she would make her fortune with it, but I suspect that the Times review strikes at the heart of why the novel has never been reprinted and has been largely forgotten.  While I disagree about its being “only exasperating” (it was in fact one of my two favorites of Olivier’s novels on a first reading—but then again it’s entirely possible that I just happen to like feeling exasperated), the novel is certainly not as polished or accessible as The Love-Child

As tremendously likeable as I find Olivier herself and her writing, it’s also true that it can be difficult to engage with her characters.  She has a fascination for fragmented and stunted personalities—characters who have repressed their true selves, or are mere shades or creations of others.  Agatha and Clarissa in The Love-Child, Nicholas in Dwarf’s Blood, Mr. Chilvester in The Seraphim Room—they are birds of a feather.  The difficulty with As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s is that all of the main characters seem to be similarly incomplete—and the “heroine” most of all.  Although never quite reaching the level of Gothic that characterizes the second half of The Love-Child, this is overall a darker work that seems to explore issues from Olivier’s own childhood.

In many ways, this novel is the rather tragic story of a doormat yearning to breathe free—albeit with no very clear concept of what freedom would look like.  Jane is dominated first (along with her father, a successful artist) by her mother Margaret, passive-aggressively:

When Bernard was in his London studio, or staying in some country house to paint a portrait, he presumably lived his own life in his own way, but at the White House he only sat at Margaret's feet. She kept him there because she never allowed marriage to become intimate enough to smudge the picture he had made of her when he first saw her. Her sofa was a shrine. The whole household was in the conspiracy, and her servants adored her for her pretty ways and her uselessness.

Olivier perceptively spells out Margaret’s strategy for domination [which, incidentally, will be familiar to fans of another great obscure novel rediscovered by bloggers—if, sadly, not publishers—in recent years, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters]:

Nothing could be decided till it was known how Margaret felt about it, and her feelings on all subjects were mainly negative. Doubly so, for she was in herself the negation of a negative, seldom even going so far as to say No. She merely prevented anyone about her from saying Yes.

By contrast, Jane’s grandmother—the main, er, dominatrix in the novel—is more openly aggressive.  According to Olivier’s memoir, Mrs. Basildon was inspired by her own father, and the memoir’s description of her father has much in common with the novel’s description of Mrs. Basildon:

She seemed to have made a complete scheme of life as she thought it should be lived, and into this indelible scheme those who lived about her must fit themselves or go. She wove an invisible spell, beneath which no one could even speak in her presence of things of which she disapproved. Where she lived, the world took the colour she gave it. She was greater than the sun, for she did not shine indiscriminately on the just and the unjust. She selected.

Olivier also later wrote that Jane reminded her of herself in her youth, and perhaps Jane’s self-assessment that she is like “a piece of blotting-paper, absorbing other people's ideas, but never getting them clear” is something Olivier understood only too well.  But while the author ultimately did rebel—and brilliantly develop her own ideas—she realized that her character could not, since “in order to rebel successfully, the rebel must have his own conception of life, equally complete and equally believed in.”

Jane, tragically, has no conception of life at all.  At least, no conception of real life.  The sum of the influences of her mother’s passive-aggressiveness and her grandmother’s aggressiveness seems to be paralysis, a retreat into fantasies—of romance, of friendship, of independence, even of a kind of authority.  Factored into this is her trauma over her parents’ sudden deaths in a railway accident while Jane is sharing a romantic afternoon with Julian, a young man with whom she has fallen in love (in a manner of speaking).  She hears the news when he brings her home.  She is still happy from her afternoon, and her first thought is that she will be mistress of the house, that she will be independent and free.  In a brilliantly Freudian way, the tragedy of the moment that she is unable to feel on the surface is displaced onto a trivial occurrence when she is given tea to steady her nerves:

She did not move, and clumsily Julian began to pour it out. Her listless eyes watched him,seeing how badly he did it. A stream of tea ran back from the spout on to the cloth. She knew how exasperated Margaret would have been to see that stain on her choice embroidery.

And then suddenly Jane began to sob. She could not stop crying. She had broken down completely; and as she cried, she knew that it was not the death of her parents which had broken her. It was the sight of that tea being spilt. She cried wildly when she saw it.

This is the kind of touch that Olivier does so well.  It seems that Jane represses the real trauma of the moment, and by focusing instead on the disruption of a minor social nicety she foreshadows what we will later learn about her grandmother’s own sharply repressed personal tragedy.  Jane’s repression of the trauma of her parents’ deaths seems to result in a general avoidance of strong emotions and a preference for fantasy life, which in turn paves the way for her grandmother’s domination to take hold. 

Although I won’t provide any spoilers, I can say that even the spilling of the tea is importantly echoed, late in the novel, by Mrs. Basildon’s uncharacteristic carelessness with a candlestick…

Following the deaths of her parents, Jane goes to live with her grandmother.  She retains contact with Julian, and has a passionate interlude with him in The Gazebo (perhaps its central prominence as a symbol in the novel is indicated by the strange but persistent capitalization of its name?), a long-abandoned structure on Mrs. Basildon’s estate, which

stood on a little grassy hill, rising miraculously from out of a grove of immemorial ilexes. Their soft grey billows made great curves round the vivid green of the smooth turf, and they looked like trees in a tapestry—too ancient to be swayed by any passing wind of to-day. There was a sacredness about them, and they held the hill and its temple within a still circle where a long-forgotten world seemed to be imprisoned.

Jane’s love (such as it is) has been subjected to doubts because of her inability to trust her own feelings for Julian in opposition to her friends (and, of course, her grandmother), who see him as, in modern parlance, a loser.  The Gazebo is perhaps a symbol of the fantasy world in which Jane has to remain imprisoned in order to feel love unplagued by doubt or conflict.  Ultimately, like Agatha in The Love-Child, Jane wonders if fantasy isn’t better than reality:

He gave her all the colour that she had in her life. She felt that she wanted to keep him, as her secret, warming the rather chilly existence which was hers without him, but never bringing him into the open, where the cold blast of other people's criticism blighted her romance so cruelly.

The realities of life are heartbreakingly unromantic:

[T]hose petty criticisms made it more difficult to declare oneself on his side than it would have been if he had been accused of some great crime. Then one could feel heroic. Now, one merely seemed lacking in taste.

And this, in a nutshell, seems to be Jane’s main problem.  Incapable of facing conflict (“her chief aim in life was to avoid discussion”), she is unable to commit to anything at all except in fantasy.  Love, elopement, friendship, an imagined “calling” for convent life, even a patriotic urge toward nursing when World War I breaks out—all of these emerge as possible escapes for Jane as time passes and the novel progresses, but all would require the strength and courage to face reality with its terrible uncertainties and the inevitable disapproval of others.  Like Mr. Chilvester in Olivier’s final (and, for me, best) novel, Jane has adopted Mrs. Basildon’s view that progress is a four letter word, with the result that she merely stagnates.

Yet perhaps Jane’s own summing up of her life, midway through the novel, is her best defense:

“I don’t think my life has been empty. I was content. But perhaps I like emptiness.”

Despite the real unrelatability of the main characters and the impossibility of sympathizing on a deeper level with any of them, I find this novel fascinating.  It is frustrating and even oppressive at time.  It is repetitive and could have used a good editor.  But by the same token, and perhaps for some of the same reasons, it is completely unpredictable and just amazingly, wonderfully odd.  Of course, I have a high tolerance for oddness.  Your results may vary…

Olivier in her garden at Daye House
In addition, the theme of dual personalities—or even of the multiplicity of individual selves—is a compelling one.  Jane is shocked to discover that her mother eloped with her father, and can’t wrap her head around the revelations of her grandmother’s great tragedy.  Her interpretations of these events are simplistic and self-serving, as if she can’t acknowledge that these women might once have been different from what they are now, and can’t acknowledge the real human feeling of anyone outside of herself.  Part of Jane’s tragedy may be that she can’t grasp any kind of change or development, can’t understand any form of multiplicity—a fact that is highlighted early on in one of several moments of comic relief in the novel, a scene at a dinner party Jane attends:

The fact that they were twins made everything which was said by Monty and Perry sound successfully funny; although to Jane, in that first half-hour, their jokes seemed to have no point at all. The room rocked with laughter when they said they liked doughnuts, and the story of one of them" taking a toss at the point-to-point" and finding himself on his head in a ditch, "not knowing for the life of him which of them he was," was utterly incomprehensible to Jane, who still thought the twins were one person.

The concept of a multiple self is one, as I said earlier, that fascinated Olivier, and I have to wonder what Olivier’s contact with the writings of Freud might have been.  There is no mention of him in her published journals, but it is hard to believe that the younger circle of artists with whom Olivier became friends following her sister’s death—Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, and others—would not have been knowledgeable of his theories which were so popular  and even trendy at the time.  At any rate, Freud’s influence seem to linger lovingly in this novel, which is perhaps appropriate for one of Olivier’s most personal explorations of her own childhood.

This theme of multiplicity would return—handled in a much lighter vein—in Olivier’s next novel The Triumphant Footman, which I hope to write about here soon.

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