Thursday, May 2, 2013

ENID BAGNOLD, The Squire (1938)

 I was happy to receive the newest Persephone Bi-Annually and discover that one of my favorite long-out-of-print novels is about to get a new lease on life.  I was intending to write at least a short post about it anyway, so what better time to do it?

Of course, these days Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) is known primarily as the author of the classic “children’s” novel National Velvet (it was actually written for adults, but such are the vicissitudes of the publishing industry).  Bagnold also published four other novels, including The Happy Foreigner (1920), an enjoyable modernist work based on her World War I experiences as an ambulance driver, Serena Blandish (1924), a truly terrible “roaring twenties” kind of novel that was (absolutely understandably) published under a pseudonym, The Squire (1938), and The Loved and Envied (1951), a beautifully elegaic late novel about aging aristocrats.  Her literary career actually began with a memoir of her days as a VAD nurse in World War I, A Diary Without Dates (1917), which received substantial media attention and got her fired from her nursing job.  Fans of National Velvet (1935) might be interested to know that she also wrote a book intended for children, Alice and Thomas and Jane (1930).  Bagnold was also a successful dramatist who wrote nine plays, including The Chalk Garden (1956), which was made into a 1964 film starring Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills.

In a 2008 Guardian article on Enid Bagnold’s work, Margaret Drabble said of The Squire, “Imagine To the Lighthouse written by Mrs Ramsay expecting her fifth child,” and that’s a pretty fair representation.  It’s a sensual yet strikingly unsentimental novel about maternity and mortality.  It’s not heavy on plot; it tells of a 44-year-old mother of four awaiting the birth of her fifth child.  Her husband is travelling in India for three months, so she is “the squire” of the manor in his absence.  As the midwife arrives to guide her through another birth, the squire meditates about life and death in relation to her approaching labor, her distant youthful adventures in Paris, her friend Caroline’s current love affairs (which the squire views almost anthropologically, so little can she relate to them now), her children’s anxieties, and her problems with servants.

Several elements of The Squire make it one of my favorite obscurities.  The squire is never given a name—reinforcing the novel’s concerns with domestic life and a mother’s relations to her children (in the way that mothers are, of course, nameless to their small children, not because of their unimportance, but because of their complete centrality).  Bagnold plays with gender assumptions, not only in the squire’s masculine title and her position as head of house, but in the squire’s references to having become more “male” in her unsentimentality toward men (and the fact that her absent husband is barely mentioned during the novel may support this self-assessment). 

Perhaps most interesting of all are the reactions of other women in the house to the squire’s impending labor: a prudish cook resigns in disgust, offended by the mere thought of childbirth; the new cook gets drunk and spends the night with a man in her room as the labor approaches; the children’s nurse yearns for the the day when a new baby will be given into her care; Caroline feigns interest in the baby and is distressed by the squire’s breastfeeding; and the midwife is single-mindedly intent on protecting the squire from stress and distraction so that her milk will flow evenly and her bond with the child will be undisturbed.

Some readers were shocked by Bagnold’s descriptions of childbirth and breastfeeding when the novel was published in 1938.  Bagnold worked on the novel over the course of 15 years and through four of her own pregnancies.  She reportedly believed no one had ever effectively recorded the emotional experiences of birth and maternity, and she set out to accomplish that with The Squire.

More than anything else, however, it is Bagnold’s prose that makes this novel extraordinary for me.  Here are a couple of examples.  The first is a description of two of the squire’s children, who are really amazingly delineated in the novel, each given a vivid and unique identity:

Every development and conclusion in Boniface was unheralded.  He would not speak, he would not warn.  Only now and then, to the squire, his face would light up and his awkward magnificent words would totter out, pompous, glittering, antique and biblical, past his unsmiling lips and beneath his intent, fixed eyes.  Henry gay and crisp, lived beside Boniface as on the side of a volcano; ready to dodge and flee when danger rumbled, knowing that under the calm and greening slopes God and the devil lived within, shrugging his creamy shoulders, grinning when he could, but deeply, profoundly respectful, as we are all respectful, towards singleness of purpose, silence, and absence of explanation.

And here is the anticipation of the children’s nurse for the new birth:

Nurse’s happy excitement was flying in her face.  All her dreams as a young girl of sixteen, all the scrubbing and washing and running to orders that she had done as a nurserymaid, all the years spent in picking up scraps of knowledge, of working first here and then there, minding the older children, and later on the younger, all had been directed on such a crisis as this.  Birth, and the newborn, and her own ‘sole charge.’  The elder children stood back a pace, pale hedges in a garden, while she dived like a gardener into the mould to tend the new plant.”

There’s so much more to say (and quote) about this wonderful novel, but for once I will restrain myself and let you all discover it for yourself when the Persephone edition comes out this fall.

No comments:

Post a Comment

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!