Wednesday, July 3, 2013

EILUNED LEWIS, The Captain's Wife (1943)

I think I first came across this novel a couple of years ago when I was obsessively tracking down every bit of British literature I could find from World War II.  When I realized that it was actually set in the late nineteenth  
century in Wales, I think I sort of pushed it aside as of peripheral interest, and it was only recently that I came across Eiluned Lewis's name again and decided to delve deeper.  

I'm glad I did, as it is really a beautiful, eloquent novel, reminiscent for me of another writer from across the Atlantic who was for a long time dismissed or underrated, like Lewis, because she was a "regional" writer.  Willa Cather's novels of American pioneer life--particularly O Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918)--are among my favorites, and are similarly vivid evocations of time and place.  Like The Captain's Wife, they are perhaps a bit nostalgic, even idealized, with their hard-working, pious characters bravely facing the difficulties of life.  And yet, they are at the same time unflinching in their portrayal of those hardships, of tragedy, suffering, and death, and even of distinctly un-noble characters as well.  Although Lewis's novel is, in many ways, a rather "inspirational" kind of novel, with its emphasis on moral characters and religion as a source of strength in facing life's struggle, it also doesn't really shy away from the rough stuff.  It has it's feet on the ground, and the ground, as it so often does, gets muddy sometimes.

The plot--to the extent the novel has one (another reason I like it perhaps--it's a quiet, "slice of life" kind of novel, rather than a plot-driven "what will happen next" kind of book, and as such you can sink into it, live it vicariously)--surrounds Lettice Peters, the captain's wife of the title, her children (especially Mattie, from whose perspective some of the story is told), John, her husband who is often away on his voyages, and their various neighbors and family.  

I don't have any profound thoughts or brilliant analysis about the book, only a few things that struck me.

One thing that Lewis does so well and with great subtlety is portraying the emotional ups and downs of Lettice's life.  When John has just returned from a voyage, Lettice "wakened each morning with a little start of joy."  But only a short while later, as they arrive for a visit to her unmarried sister at the home where they grew up, Lettice reflects on her childhood: "A feeling of lightness and airiness came to her as she thought of these things.  How free from cares she had been in those days!"  And what has changed, we soon realize, is that she is already thinking of John's next voyage, when she will lose her joy again.  

It's not easy (at least if we believe Tolstoy) to make a happy family interesting, and yet Lewis does it in a completely convincing way.  Lettice's joy and sorrow are always just a breath apart.  Even when happy, she knows another departure will be coming.  This is stressed by her recollections of--and her daughter Matty's reflections on--the beginnings and endings of school holidays.  The beginning is always the beginning of the end.  Life is cyclical, and these smaller comings and goings also inform the novel's larger concerns with life and death--which might have been influenced too by the time in which the novel was written.

There were quite a number of writers who turned to historical fiction during the war, since for many readers (and the writers themselves) it must have been a relief to focus on the problems of other times rather than on the bombs dropping or the long queues for limited food.  Lewis, however, only published two novels--the first was Dew on the Grass (1934), an autobiographical portrayal of her own childhood, which is now on my to-read list as well--so the fact that she set this one in the even more distant past (basing it on the life of her grandmother, Martha Griffiths--see this fascinating bit of background about Martha on Honno Press's website) was perhaps not out of character.  But one can certainly imagine that the meditations on death--particularly on the risk of sudden loss of loved ones--may have had added relevance for Lewis and for her readers.

The real captain's house in St. Davids

The community Lewis describes, called St. Idris in the novel (actually St. Davids), lives and breaths the sea.  When Lettice visits her husband's aunt late in the novel, we get a picture of why the villagers felt ambivalent about their relationship with the sea:

The MacAlisters had fared to the ends of the earth, and of Alexander’s three sons Thomas became a commander in the East India Company’s service and died in Calcutta, Henry was lost with his ship and all hands in the Australian Bight, and Alexander the second was shot through the head off Sevastopol in the Crimean War.  Rachel, the one surviving sister, married a merchant captain and send her only child to sea.  Father and son died on the same voyage of yellow fever in Rio, and Rachel, widowed, childless and brotherless, lived on in the tall house where she had been born.

Lettice, too, is forever aware of the dangers facing John on his voyages.  In one particularly poignant passage (which I won't quote here because you should really experience it first in its context in the novel), she wrestles with the knowledge that, unless she could go down on his ship with him, one of them will inevitably die before the other.

But the novel is not really depressing, though I may have made it sound so.  Well, at least not TOO depressing.  Like Cather's, it's merely a realistic one, in which death and sorrow have their place but are not allowed to dominate.  For example, Lettice's children frequently play in the ruins of the Bishop's Palace near their home, and they can sense its rich, dark past, but this actually adds to the fun and excitement of their games:

When in the course of their games the children chased each other with flying feet down broken stairways, hid themselves behind a spiral bend to watch, through an arrow slit in the wall, their pursuer’s stealthy approach, or leapt into the dark mouth of a vault, then it was well to lay a firm hold on the present; to listen for the friendly sound of a cart crossing the Deanery bridge, or remember that Marged had been baking and that there would be fresh bread for tea.  Anything at all to keep at bay the thought of men being hunted for their lives, of places slippery with blood, and dripping prison walls from which there was no return to sun and air and cheerfulness again.

In fact, perhaps this is a central passage of the novel, now that I think about it, in the way it reflects young life joyfully making games out of the sorrows of the past?  What do you think?  

Happily, Honno Press in the U.K. seems to be keeping both of Lewis's novels in print, as well as numerous other interesting works of Welsh literature.

The ruins of the Bishop's Palace today

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog while searching for 'Dew on the Grass' which I have loved since adolescence (I'm now 78) as I wanted to send a copy to a friend. I was most interested in your account of 'The Captain's Wife and will buy a copy of that as well. I'm delighted to have found this site. It sounds as if you like my sort of books. I also love Willa Cather, especially 'My Antonia'
    You may be interested to know that I published a novel last year. But I'll Remember This is set in the late 1950 in a provincial catherdral city. I think you might like it - lots of people seem to. If you're interested I'll send you details In the meantime, keep blogging.
    Pam Nixon


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