Sunday, August 25, 2013

CELIA BUCKMASTER, Village Story (1951)

In a village a new face is new for a very long time, and a new name remains strange until it is put on a tombstone and so becomes one of the family at last.

As opening lines go, this is a pretty good one, and it was enough to reassure me that there were going to be, at the very least, a few high points in spontaneously deciding to read this totally unknown author's long-forgotten first novel.  But in fact there were more than just a few.

A few days ago, I gave a bit of background on coming across Celia Buckmaster's name in Nicola Beauman's wonderful biography of Elizabeth Taylor, and provided what little information I've unearthed about this intriguing painter and author of two novels.  I also mentioned that this has already become one of my favorite obscure novels—which has rather intimidated me, since now that I come to think of it I'm not at all sure how to sum up what I liked so much in this rather unpresumptuous, down-to-earth, but compulsively readable story about villagers living their lives.  Happily, though, for readers of this blog, the fact that it's an unpresumptuous, down-to-earth, but compulsively readable story about villagers living their lives may be a recommendation in itself!

Interestingly, it was Elizabeth Taylor that I thought of most often in reading Village Story.  Buckmaster has a similar knack for sharp, brilliant character sketches and a similar determination to give dignity and depth to even her minor characters.  Buckmaster's prose, like Taylor's, is smooth and understated, but re-reading parts of the novel to write this review I noticed hints and implications I had completely overlooked on my first reading—an experience that's also familiar from reading Taylor.  They are both deceptively simply writers, and sentences that seem perfectly straightforward contain subtle revelations.

Village Story's main plot revolves around two discontented wives.  Mrs. Noyce is a painter (like Buckmaster herself) who married her husband because he took her art seriously and wouldn't want her to be domestic, but who is now beginning to yearn for motherhood.  Mrs. Ethelburger, on the other hand—introduced by Buckmaster as the heroine of the novel—has four children and is more or less happy with her husband, but has nevertheless been escaping domestic drudgery by rather cold-bloodedly carrying on an affair with a businessman in the village:

Of course, if Mrs Ethelburger had been efficient and house-proud it might have been a bit easier. The house was very badly run. … Mrs. Ethelburger, who sat down when she wanted to think, had been classed as very intelligent when a girl, but seeing her in this ramshackle house, surrounded by her noisy family (as though there were not enough children about, there were photos of them all over the mantelpiece), people had wondered: hadn't she rather thrown herself away?

The reasons for the womens' discontentment are not made entirely explicit, but this seems rather appropriate for a novel focused on village life.  The reader, like a neighbor in the village, is given not much more information than one might overhear in passing or in the village pub, and is left to fill in the rest.

At any rate, these plot strands are merely the frame on which the novel rests.  We also meet the Noyces' cook and the elderly nurse who raised Mr. Noyce and lives with them still; the Rector and his wife, who finds life hilarious in a rather scornful way despite the Rector urging her toward compassion; Mr. Browning, the self-made businessman hurt by Mrs. Ethelburger's treatment; his mother, with whom he still lives and who thinks the villagers look down on her for dropping her aitches; and Linda, the resentful, spoiled young girl who helps out at the Noyces' until she begins to fantasize that Mr. Noyce is making advances on her.

It's all quite mundane and ordinary, as real life actually is, and that's what, for me, makes it so compelling.  Buckmaster's particular concern is for the little frustrations and limitations of civilized life.  Most characters are shown facing these, and Buckmaster's exploration of them reveals her real strength as a writer.  The only way to convey the power of it all is to quote, but be warned: Buckmaster doesn't write in short, clever soundbites.  Her depth unfolds in elegant slow motion, so my quotes will be longer than usual.  Hopefully I'm not too egregiously violating copyright.

Here is one of the most breathtaking bits in the novel, about the elderly nurse, in which virtually every line packs a punch:

And nurse, whom you probably think of as a minor character, a subdued joke, as it were, is an important person really. Her kind is dying out, but once people like her formed the infant minds of the country's rulers. Upper-class families, whose sons were destined to pass through the Public Schools and then the appropriate Universities, and thence onward guiding the nation's affairs, all had nurses. These women, once so intimately bound up with affairs, we are inclined to think of now as old-fashioned, Old Testament creatures really. And Old Testament they are. A man of Mr. Noyce's age, if he had a nurse in infancy, most certainly has the voice of conscience somewhere among his inner voices. It speaks with rather a common voice perhaps, muttering the Ten Commandments, gives warning about punishment, and says "Now, now" in awkward situations. That is nurse. Naturally when conscience is outmoded, so is nurse. We laugh at her and tease like Mr. Noyce. But Mr. Noyce will always feel a little guilty. There are still nurses, of course, to this day, for any class that can afford them, admirable nurses, young and college trained, but their function has altered with the times. They are interested in diet-vitamins and so forth, and child psychology has opened up a whole new field of investigation for them; so that it is to science that they look for inspiration at their task, not religion. "Carrots make you see in the dark," the modern nurse might well say to the finicky feeder, but: "Think what you said at Grace, Master Harry, and eat what's put before you"—certainly not.

Old nurse spends her time now mending and sewing in her dusty parlour. She is growing blind, and besides her silver-rimmed spectacles, she must read the Bible in the evenings with the help of a magnifying-glass. The mice trouble her, she can hear them gnawing at the wainscoting, and so she keeps her large neutered cat Marcus constantly at her side. There is always a fire burning in her room and a black kettle singing on the hob. Her hands are twisted with arthritis so that if she points an accusing finger her hand will not obey her and she cannot stretch it out. She wears only boots now, they help her with her ankles, and these are nearly hidden under the skirts of her voluminous grey dresses. She always has a shawl on, but not an apron, and the large black hairpins, which she uses to keep up her masses of white hair) catch at the shawl at the back of her neck so that she feels the shawl slipping and hunches her shoulders. Her voice trembles a little when she speaks, like someone reading who knows the end of the sad story. She still trusts in the Lord.

I've read this passage at least ten times now and think it's genuinely brilliant.  The accusing finger crippled with age manages to be symbolic, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.

And here, just after he has overheard an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Noyce, is Broom, their gardener, whose own wife has recently left him for another man.  Broom mulls over the turmoils and complexities of matrimony:

His own wife was childless, and he had come to the conclusion that barrenness was the root of all evil. A kind man with a sad look in his eyes, he would never, in fact, have laid hands on his wife with intent to harm her, but noticing how she treated animals, giving the dog a kick when she stumbled over him in the dark, shouting abuse at the proud geese when they invaded her garden, he had sometimes longed to beat her with the little whip she kept to train the cats. Besides having no children, Mrs. Broom and Mrs. Noyce had other things in common. Mrs. Broom had belonged to a circus before she married, and so to a certain extent had the feelings of a creative artist. She had been trained to do a small act with the lions; but one day there was an accident and her face was lacerated. Badly shaken and disfigured, she was no good for the circus any more. She then married Mr. Broom, who had always been after her (he had met her in the town near the village when first the circus came there, and then they had exchanged letters, meeting seldom but being faithful to each other), and now, perhaps out of nostalgia for the circus, she trained cats to do little tricks, such as jumping over boxes and leaping at her when she called. This ruined her temper, because cats are so hard to train. She had one friend, the village post-mistress—a large, domineering woman like herself, who lived in almost perfect peace with a frail, domesticated husband and two grown-up boys who went away to work. The post-mistress, Mrs. Blonsom, was on friendly terms with Mrs. Ethelburger. Both women kept bees, and when the time came for honey to be extracted, they helped each other. At Christmas they exchanged presents, and at all times of the year were glad to meet and have a talk. They did not exactly gossip, but were inclined to shake their heads together over the frailties of human nature.

This wealth of interconnected detail evokes the interconnected lives of the villagers as well as Broom's train of thought, and the image of Mrs. Broom training cats out of a frustrated desire for the circus is almost as funny and tragic as the nurse's arthritic finger.

And finally, though Buckmaster's intent in the novel is a serious one—she doesn't play the villagers for easy laughs—here is one passage it's hard to read without a smile, though here too are real frustration and well-meaning, if misguided, intent.  The Rector and his wife discuss her newfound political conviction:

"I know what you are driving at, Arthur. But you see, unlike you, I wasn't brought up with all these class prejudices. My family were once rulers, but whatever purpose did these landed gentry serve? Greedy landlords, that's what they are!"

"My dear, as I've said before, I don't think you quite understand what you are talking about. If you really want to be a Communist, you should first of all read Das Kapital. It's somewhere about in the library."

Mrs Spark drummed her fingers on the table, smiling a bit, but not looking at her husband.

"Arthur," she said, "to be a good Comrade doesn't mean that one has to be so awfully clever. You, for instance, are an intellectual. But the really important people, you know, are the Workers."

The Rector sighed.

Still, ever since Mrs Spark had learnt to sing 'The Red Flag' she had been much happier. She caught the bus every Wednesday afternoon (early closing day in the town), and stayed on for the factory workers' meeting. She read Communist tracts, and had ordered the Daily Worker. (But for some reason it had never come.) She carried on with her Women's Institute activities just as usual and arranged the flowers for Sunday services, and, in fact, carried on in every way just the same. Only every now and then there were these little outbursts. It made the Rector careful with what he said. But one cannot always think twice before one speaks, and so there were collisions. There are many surprising things about married life, but the apparent ease with which two people even in their old age can settle down to a new phase in their relationship is surely one of the most extraordinary. Before, it had always been the Rector who was right about everything; he held the magic keys. Now they were obsolete. Not that Mrs Spark had stopped being a Christian-far from it-she often remarked how near she felt to those early Christians (about A.D. 1). It was in her attitude to the little vexations-politics, what sort of books to put down on the library list, what programmes to listen to on the wireless-the sort of things a puzzled wife refers to her husband with confidence in his superior powers, that Mrs Spark had changed. He was quite calm about it all, and except for one thing (barring the arguments, of course, but they were only tiffs), never showed any strong feelings about the change. But instead of presenting her with a bunch of roses on her birthday as usual, he gave her a book on dialectical materialism. It proves, I think, that women are hard to please, because she was very hurt.

This is not a perfect novel.  It does bear some of the weaknesses of a first book.  Juggling so many characters is a challenge for any writer, and focus is occasionally lost.  There are places, too, where interactions—especially those involving the two central women—descend into mere squabbling and resentment and become less interesting.  But for me, the inspired characterizations and powerful writing of passages like those above more than make up for the book's flaws.  I think Village Story can be added to my list of forgotten novels that should be in print.

Now to dive into Family Ties, Buckmaster's only other novel, which I will plan to write about in the next week or two.  It will be a little bittersweet to exhaust such a strong writer's "complete works" so quickly!

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