Tuesday, May 28, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, The Triumphant Footman (1930)

There seems to have been a long, prestigious lineage of invalid characters in English literature—characters who are "ailing" or "sickly" or otherwise weak, bedridden, or ill.  I admit I haven't ever really given this a lot of thought (beyond noting how often Jane Austen's characters seem to need to have a "lie down" after even the slightest of disruptions), but it turns out that there are even a fair number of full-length academic studies of this subject in literature.  (And if you expand the subject to include characters with mental as well as physical illness, you'll be able to fill a small library with academic studies of the subject.)
So clearly there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the presence of invalids in novels by women writers of the early to mid 20th century.
But nevertheless, I have found myself wondering, in particular as I re-read the odd little novels of Edith Olivier, if there may have been a shift in representations of invalids during this period—if, perhaps, there wasn't an increased focus on what might be called faux invalids, and a greater skepticism or sense of irony surrounding invalid characters.  Maybe it was the influence of Freud and his analyses of neurotic symptoms—not to mention his discussions of passive aggressiveness?  Or maybe it was just the coming of a more modern generation of writers who were willing to question the sacred and eternal goodness of maternal figures (since literary invalids seem very often to be mothers)? 
Of course, bad mothers are just about as common in literature as bad fathers.  Parental relationships are fraught with anxiety, guilt, or even outright hostility, so it's hardly surprising that writers like exploring them and readers like reading about them.  But a particular kind of bad mother—the kind who manipulates and dominates via her own supposed weakness and ill health, which requires that she get her way and that other characters tiptoe nervously around her in order to avoid upsetting her—seems perhaps to be more present and more subtly explored in mid 20th century women's fiction than in works of other times.  I think in particular of Diana Tutton's criminally out-of-print novel Guard Your Daughters, which begins as a rollicking, Dodie Smith-esque comedy about an eccentric family of daughters with a loving but fragile mother, with only occasional darker foreshadowings to let the reader know that all is not quite well, but ends with the narrator in a distinctly un-rollicking frame of mind as she begins to come to terms with what amounts to years of emotional abuse.

This is all more or less idle speculation on my part, since I'm not planning to do a full-scale thesis on it.  But I have been thinking about it, and I'll certainly be paying more attention to this theme in my reading from here on out.

At any rate, it is certainly beyond question that faux invalids are a favorite theme in Edith Olivier's work.  This theme figured in Olivier's second novel, As Far as Jane's Grandmother's, in the character of Jane's mother.  It figures again more prominently in Olivier's third novel.

Original dust cover, designed by Rex Whistler

The Triumphant Footman, set in the late 19th century, is Olivier's most cheerful and lighthearted novel—farfetched but funny and entertaining, and containing more depth and subtlety than I thought it did on my first reading.  Though still focusing on Olivier's favorite central theme of multiple selves, here the multiplicity isn't as tragic as in The Love-Child or As Far as Jane's Grandmother's.  Instead, Footman is something of a picaresque, a series of adventures that the footman of the title has in impersonating various figures, nearly getting caught (even nearly being imprisoned or executed), but always—as the title makes clear—triumphing in the end.

The faux invalid here is Mrs. Lemaur, wife of Captain Lemaur, Alphonse the footman's employer, and one of Olivier's most brilliant characterizations.  The novel opens with a lovely and sadly humorous indication of Mrs. Lemaur's practically diaphanous existence:

It was growing dark. Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawingroom, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the halflight. The room became ghostlike, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts. These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls—all of these things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window.

Mrs. Lemaur had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she observed neither of these. She liked being petted and she also liked to have a great many small objects in her room. Such were her sole reactions to love and to beauty. So it almost seemed as if she did not actually live in those rooms of hers which were admitted on all sides to be so unique. She simply lay on her sofa in them squeaking like a mouse, and with a mouse's view of life.

This "mouse" is completely self-absorbed, whining and fretting in order to keep her worshipful husband at her beck and call, but rarely acknowledging him—or anyone else for that matter:

Mrs. Lemaur's attention had wandered. She seldom cared to listen to the answers to her utterances. She only wanted them to be heard.

And yet here, as in all of Olivier's other novels, the least sympathetic character is not only the most vividly and realistically drawn, but is also presented with clear authorial sympathy and admiration.  It's likely that most of Olivier's selfish, dominating characters were based, at least in part, upon her father, whom Olivier described in her memoirs:

The autocratic grandmother was a type I knew well in my father and his sisters. It is a character which charms me, mostly because I could never be at all like it myself. Such characters are rare to-day. They suggest a life lived in a secure and unshakable setting. The tides of varying opinions may sweep to and fro outside it, but all the time it remains completely watertight. The house of such people is indeed built upon a rock. Fashions and opinions may change, the world look this way and that, uncertain what to believe or how to act, but within those impenetrable walls, life goes on as before. The master of the house remains its master. A personality such as this sounds harsh and forbidding, and it may be so at heart, but in the case of my father, I had seen it veiled in an outer garment of courteous old-fashioned manners, which simply made him impossible to argue with. If one ever attempted such a thing, he could always finally and definitely place one in the wrong.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the tyrannical characters are the ones Olivier seems to know and even to love the best.  For example, when Captain Lemaur suddenly drops dead on a train to Florence, the maid Mrs. Lemaur has terrorized on a daily basis feels a pang—and Olivier is able to make the reader feel the pang too—of sympathy:

By this time Dove had become aware that something was going on behind her. She stepped back into the carriage, and saw the terrible thing which had happened. Sitting down beside her mistress, she put her arms round her, with an uprush of tenderness and pity for the little creature who had never before faced any sorrow of her own, and had never observed that sorrow existed for other people.

It's a lovely scene, and a testament to Olivier's skill that she is able to draw out the tragedy of Mrs. Lemaur's lifelong self-absorption, even while showing a few pages later how even the tragedy itself becomes fuel for the fire:

She was utterly bereaved, and bereaved in the cruellest, most tragical fashion. Her sorrow was unique. It made her for ever important.

Although I've spent an inordinate amount of time on Mrs. Lemaur because Olivier's treatment of her is so wonderful, she is not really at the center of novel.  She is for me merely a particularly fascinating example of Olivier's ability to identify with the dark sides of her characters—perhaps a surprising ability in the upper middle class daughter of a canon who never married and began writing only in her fifties.  Certainly a lot of writers with more liberal or varied backgrounds seem less capable of presenting unsavory characters with such depth and compassion.

Original frontispiece by Rex Whistler

But the focus here is really on Alphonse's deceptions, or perhaps, more accurately, on the ways in which the other characters gleefully act as accessories to his deceptions.

Alphonse is the son of a working class couple, whose uncanny ability to mimic and inhabit other identities may have something to do with his wide array of monikers:

[W]hile his mother always clung to the soft Parisian syllables of his full name, Alphonse was known to his father and to all his London friends simply as 'Alf'; and the Superintendent of the Sunday-school wrote him down in the register, without question, as 'Alfred Biskin.' In Spain, his master had called him 'Alfonso,' and Alphonse accepted this variant of his name as readily as the others. Each new appellation, too, seemed to call out a slightly different aspect of his character.

First, Alphonse poses as the guest of honor—a famous Spanish museum director—at a lavish Florentine party, then later helps to "investigate" the impersonation, suggesting to police that perhaps a gang of international art thieves is involved.  Then he poses as an actor friend, not only playing his friend's part in a play but actually portraying his friend with other cast members before the play and while romancing the lead actress afterward.  At a Court affair celebrating Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Alphonse impersonates an Australian businessman who never arrived to claim his invitation, and he manages to rescue a piece of Mrs. Lemaur's jewelry which she has carelessly lost and returns it to her extravagantly, seductively, and without being recognized.  And finally, he poses as a French Vicomte and is accepted by an expert on that family's genealogy.

Farfetched indeed, yet what adds humor and some depth to these otherwise frivolous shenanigans is that Olivier portrays the other characters' eagerness to accept Alphonse's deceptions because of his personal charm and his ability to romanticize his impersonations.

As the Spanish museum director, for example, Alphonse speaks with his former employer, Count Pendini, and suggests that they have met before under circumstances which he shouldn't describe in the presence of ladies:

The Count was immensely flattered. He was a quiet man who collected butterflies, and he had always regretted that throughout his life he had never succeeded in doing anything shocking. It was a revelation to discover this lurid incident in his own past, and as he could remember nothing whatever about it, he concluded that he must have been very drunk at the time. This made him feel more rakish than ever.

When the real museum director arrives the next day, the guests from the party are unhesitating in their determination that the poor, frumpy, ordinary man is the imposter:

He was a short, stumpy man, with skin which looked as if it were thinly covered with lichen, greenish grey. Unlike most men of Southern race, the Señor had a dislike of the barber's shop; and he cut his hair and beard himself, chopping off knots of hair here and there as they got in his way, with no regard for the general contour of his head and face. Neither his clothes nor his person were over clean, and he brought with him a smell of very old tobacco.

Señor Ortez, indeed? They all knew better. Not this man, not this common, undistinguished person, but the graceful, aristocratic personage of the Contessa's party—he alone was the Señor Ortez they were willing to accept.

In every instance, Alphonse's seemingly impossible impersonations are believed because the characters involved want so badly to be deceived.  Alphonse's flirtation with Mrs. Lemaur in returning her jewels at the Jubilee celebration renders her unable to recognize him.  The actors in his friend's play find him more entertaining and charming than "usual" and so embrace him as their real co-star.  And the real descendent of the French Vicomte Alphonse pretends to be is so happy to have an excuse to obsessively rewrite the family history in a more romantic way that he cheerfully believes the most outlandish tales.

This added layer of irony doesn't make it any less true that The Triumphant Footman is Olivier's fluffiest and most purely entertaining novel.  But it does add an extra kick, for me at least.

One other element that I found intriguing here was the presence of so many truly obsessive characters.  God knows I can relate to obsessiveness, and the presence of these characters here made me laugh a few times. 

Poor Count Pendini is rather extravagantly obsessed with his butterfly collection:

Count Pendini never allowed the door of his library to be opened when he was occupied with his collection of butterflies. He declared that the least draught might entirely ruin some of his treasures, by scattering the bloom which gave so magic a colour to their wings. So before he opened his cabinet, he always hung a warning notice outside the room, and then no servant dared even tap on the door, for fear that the vibration might do some damage.

When a misunderstanding leads the police to his door early in the novel, he is hilariously undaunted:

The Count believed that a revolution must have broken out, and he made up his mind that he was to be strung up on the nearest lamppost, with the rest of the aristocracy of Florence. But his master passion ruled him. He determined that, even were he to die that very hour, his precious butterflies should not perish.

Captain Lemaur is also obsessed with collecting engraved gems and other rare items, and after his death Mrs. Lemaur becomes obsessed with them in turn, and is so absorbed in finding a proper method of display for her dead husband's favorite fan that she can only perfunctorily greet her relatives who have come to mourn with her. 

And there is a memorable scene late in the novel in which Alphonse and his wife again encounter Count Pendini, in hot pursuit of a rare moth and recklessly disregarding his risk of tumbling over a cliff.  Alphonse takes over the Count's obsessive hunt and becomes similarly obsessed:

The moth was a most elusive creature. He flitted out of reach every time that Alphonse thought that he had just got him. Mirabelle, watching from below, saw that her husband was hunting exactly as the old man had hunted. He crawled for a few feet, and then he sprang up and threw the net, only to be obviously baffled each time by the tricksy creature he was after.  Mirabelle could not help laughing as she looked on.

There seems to be some kind of symbol here.  Perhaps Olivier is suggesting that Alphonse is similarly obsessive in his frauds and impersonations, that he is always seeking something—a stable identity?—that is as elusive as the moth.  Perhaps she is even suggesting that after all the pursuit—whether of knowledge, of wisdom, of security, or of adventure—is what it's all about?

Or, admittedly, perhaps she was merely writing a humorous scene and I am revealing yet again my obsessive tendency to over-analyze…

Either way, The Triumphant Footman is a quirky, odd, funny little novel that only made me love Edith Olivier more.

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