There are few things so enjoyable to me as sitting down with a book of which I have fairly low expectations, only to find that it is fascinating in all sorts of ways I never would have expected. That's something that doesn't happen often—call me cynical, but I find that my low expectations are quite often confirmed!—but it certainly happened with Mary Bell's Summer's Day, which has now been added to my top shelf of favorite novels—the ones with which I might well try to stagger out of a burning building, or for which I would scrabble in the rubble if the "big one" ever does hit San Francisco.
I was, in fact, all prepared to write only a rather condescending short post about how, really, I could hardly expect a novel about a girls' school to be exactly my cup of tea, but that it did have some mildly amusing high points. (I would like to say that that I've learned my lesson about pre-judging books, but alas, I find that I learn slowly…)
The novel does take place in and around a girls' school before, during, and immediately after one summer term fairly soon after the end of World War II. It features a large cast of entirely believable characters, including teachers, staff, students, and students' families, each with faults and charms, most of them likeable enough (though a few are perhaps likeable only with an effort). The events are ordinary—the frustrations of youth, the disillusionments of maturity, the drudgery of students and teachers alike, unrequited love, infatuation, and even a seduction.
But three main things make this, for me, much more than a run-of-the-mill read: the author's vivid attention to detail, which makes reading about a teacher preparing to leave her cottage for a new term as riveting as a major plot development; a brilliantly double-edged sense of humor, which can be riotously funny and darkly melancholy, sometimes at the very same time, and which almost always resonates with the realities and histories of the characters involved; and a depth and underlying seriousness that lends real meaning and significance to even trivial events.
Don't believe me? Here's some of the aforementioned scene of Miss Meadows, a former classics mistress called out of retirement to fill a staffing need created by the war, preparing to leave her home for the term:
Her kitchen was a small, mouldy-smelling shrine dedicated to the evil spirit of a stove which smoked. The sitting-room with its pseudo Adam fireplace, willow pattern china and Persian carpet was dustier than she would have liked to know, but at sixty-five she did not see dust very well. The petals from the wild anemones on the piano made a little white drift on its rosewood surface.
I even found myself compulsively noting the very details I usually glide right over in other novels, not being a particularly visual kind of guy (to such an extent that once, attempting to pick out a throw rug at IKEA, I genuinely couldn't remember the color of the carpeting in an apartment I'd occupied for a year!). And the reason is that, here, the detail is not just scene-setting or pretty background, but includes careful revelation of characters and their pasts. Combine the above passage with this one, about Miss Meadows' return to her cottage during a holiday:
Letters, housework, mending, gardening, piled together, loomed like a trackless mountain at the back of her mind but she collected a deck-chair and the Iliad and sat down with her feet in the sun.
Taking just those two passages, you have a pretty clear idea of the life and priorities of one of the novel's most likeable characters—perhaps a stand-in for
Bell herself, in the sense that Miss Meadows seems to represent balance and sanity and compassion in the midst of characters in greater turmoil.
As for humor, there are a few out-and-out hilarious scenes, such as this one demonstrating the lack of authority the art master, Mr. Walker, possesses over the girls:
After break the Upper Fifth trooped into the studio with much unnecessary noise. Told to collect drawing-boards, somebody dropped one, and, as if this disaster were catching, twenty-five more clattered to the ground. Informed that the grouping from the last class would not do for them, they expressed themselves eager to help and rearranged the room with such vigour that not a piece of furniture was still. In vain Mr. Walker waved his arms and called upon them to desist while they interpreted his frantic mouthings as further exhortations to toil. When some ten minutes of the period had been wasted they consented to sit down.
But in most cases, the humor has a deeper purpose. Imagine the average writer managing to be so funny while packing so much detail and such a vivid sense of character into the following passage, in which Jasmine, a rebellious student yearning for life in the real world, waits outside the house mistress' office to be "corrected" for her latest infringement:
Three ill-mannered little girls went past and grinned at her; Jasmine looked coldly over their heads. Matron, passing with a glance of quiet satisfaction, received a malevolent glare. Miss Meadows went by with her lips moving, her eyes on the ground; as she put a pile of translations on her table she distinctly remembered seeing someone close at hand. She looked into the corridor and asked kindly, “Can I do anything for you, dear?” Jasmine thanked her and shook her head. Miss Meadows realised she had been tactless and went away looking as if she thought Jasmine was paying a social call.
She was engaged in trying to stare the Giaconda out of countenance when Miss Cottingham, who had not, as Jasmine supposed, been keeping her waiting because she had taken a tip from a dictator but because she had been hastily putting three detective stories and nine undarned stockings behind the cushions, opened the door and beckoned her in.
I still laugh every time I see the "malevolent glare," and all of this would have been quite enough to make Summer's Day a highly enjoyable novel—perhaps even one of my favorites. But in fact,
Bell's purpose here is more profound than one would expect.
When I wrote about Dorothy Evelyn Smith's Miss Plum and Miss Penny, I said one of the things I liked most was how Smith sort of subverted the whole concept of a "cozy" novel—injecting a fascinating depth and darkness into what at first appears to be a simple lark about life in an eccentric village. Although Summer's Day is not as dark in its humor as Smith's book, it does perhaps belong in the same genre—the "uncozy," you might call it.
For ultimately, it seems to me that Bell's novel is a meditation on the largest themes of all: freedom and its limits, love and loss, ambition and frustration, hope vs. compromise—even mortality itself (for it is surely not coincidental that one of the only literary quotes in this highly literary work is of Shakespeare's "Fear no more the heat of the sun" passage). Perhaps even the title, which seems quite innocuous, may be meant to suggest that a glorious summer day still must end in night.
Take a look at this passage from the opening of the novel, in which the elderly housemaid, Alice, recalls when the current Matron, Miss Bishop, arrived at the school as a student. Right away, we know that this is more than a simple school comedy or romance:
The father was dead, the old headmistress in her dotage;
Alice was quite certain that Miss Bishop herself did not remember it. The child, in her opinion, had done well to cry, might reasonably have increased her vehemence had she foreseen herself growing into the detached, successful woman who considered it her duty to be calm and cheerful. Alice wasted no pity on the past self who had witnessed those tears; she had changed from a young pretty parlour-maid to an old and stout one, with little difference in her state beyond an increase in her salary and her blood pressure.
Later on, we meet May Tern, Jasmine's aunt who adopted her when her parents were killed and who is stuck in a loveless marriage with a dull, demanding churchman:
When her doubts as to the wisdom of the union had become a certainty, and she could see the rest of her life stretching in front of her as a desert of dreary acquiescence, the two-year-old girl had been deposited upon her nearest relatives. Unlike Mrs. Tern, Jasmine appeared to fear no one; from the first she had bawled with a sturdy indifference to her uncle’s comfort which had immediately endeared her to her aunt. At sixteen she had formed a bond of mutual resistance with that lady, which, if it could not defeat the Reverend Arthur Tern, could usually circumvent him. Together they preserved a façade of decorous obedience and enjoyed themselves immensely in his absence.
And later in the book, this brief thought from May on her surname (Tern) made me laugh out loud but is also undoubtedly a bit melancholy:
A ridiculous name, she thought, reaching for one of Arthur’s stamped envelopes. As if I were a worm. Only of course I never do.
The larger themes of the novel are never heavy-handed.
Bell isn't trying to make any kind of big point or pontificate about anything. Rather, practically every line just resonates naturally with undercurrents of meaning, and that, it seems to me, is what makes a novel great.
But in addition to the grand themes I already mentioned, there may be one more that's rather surprising.
Scholar Edward Said famously wrote a few years back about the colonial subtexts of Jane Austen's novels, pointing out how many of her characters are in some ways identified with or have made their money from imperialist pursuits. A lot of Austen fans were annoyed by this or thought it was beside the point, but for me it made Austen's novels that much richer and more complex.
Surprisingly, some of that same kind of content is present here. Two of the novels' male characters are stationed or working in Africa, and the gardener, Albert, spent time in
Algiers during the war and remembers it vividly. Jasmine and her friend Sophie romanticize the men's work in naïve and idealized ways, as when Tom asks Jasmine to write to him:
“It’s a long way,” she said, imagining her letter embarking at—would it be Southampton?—and cruising off over the Atlantic, a touch of Mediterranean at Gibraltar, the
“Will you?” asked Tom, hoping she saw him as a rather heroic figure in a topee, scanning the horizon for the mail.
“Oh, yes!” said Jasmine. Her letter had arrived, it was being taken from the mail bag by—would it be black hands or white?—black, she was certain. “I should love to,” she said. Tom received the smile that was intended for the enormous negro who went bounding up the hill with her letter in his hand.
Rather interesting, too, that she winds up placing herself in Tom's position, receiving the very letter she has sent!
Even Jasmine's mother gets in on the fantasizing in a humorous way, as when she interrupts Tom's talk about the wilds:
“No, dear, don’t,” May interrupted, for it worried her to think of poor Tom surrounded by cannibals and mosquitoes and striding—she was sure he strode—through endless tracts of heat and dust.
Ultimately, I wondered if the elegiac tone of the novel may perhaps apply to the decline of the
British Empire as well, since by the time this novel was written most readers would probably have read Jasmine's fantasies of exotic locales with some irony. They do seem to hark back to a time when the world really was Britain's oyster.
Before concluding this overlong (and gushing) post, I should point out one of the recurring themes of a lot of the books I've mentioned here: the "maleficent malingerer." In this case, it's Mr. Walker's terrible mother, who pretends to be weak and helpless in order to control every part of her son's life—even stashing money away in an effort to keep him too poor to marry. But as Mr. Walker begins to experience a romantic interest (no, don't worry, no spoilers here!), she has difficulty maintaining control, as in the following, hilarious passage that perfectly sums up the passive-aggressive's strategies. Here, she awaits his return home, unaware that he has lost track of time in feminine company:
In the house his mother removed invisible specks of dust from the carpet and reminded herself to tell her son to wipe his feet. Suddenly she decided to move the piano and having turned it half-round and rucked up the carpet she waited to be found, martyred and helpless, left to struggle with such odds alone.
In the house, Mrs. Walker, despairing of an audience, squeezed two tears on to an antimacassar and pushed the piano back against the wall.
Obviously, I could quote from this novel all day long, because there is hardly a line that isn't worth noting. But this makes the mystery of Mary Bell's identity even more irritating.
|Original dust jacket (from the Greyladies edition)|
When Greyladies reprinted Summer's Day a few years ago, they searched for traces of
Bell and were unable to find her or her heirs.
It's unusual, if not unheard of, for a writer to appear out of nowhere, write a really accomplished and fascinating novel, and then vanish again. It's reminds me of Virginia Woolf's famous speculations about Judith Shakespeare, the equally brilliant (fictional, at least as far as we know) sister of the Bard, who, because of the limitations of women's lives, lack of time and privacy, lack of education and opportunity and independence, never fulfilled her promise.
The only other trace of Mary Bell in the British Library catalogue is a book called Broken Bonds (1946). This appears to have been a romance (or at least marketed as such), since it appeared in the "New Moon Series" published by William Stevens, an imprint that appears to have been dedicated to very short romance stories (featuring advertisements geared toward women throughout). It's not certain that this is the same Mary Bell, but it does seem plausible.
Bell have written other works as well? Could she have published under a pseudonym (or could "Mary Bell" have been a pseudonym itself)? Perhaps we even know of works written by her under a different name? Or is it that she wrote other books that never found a publisher? Could there be unpublished manuscripts somewhere, in the attic of a nephew who doesn't even know that Aunt Mary used to always be scribbling on a notepad? Or did Mary Bell, like so many other women, devote herself to marriage and motherhood, or to a more stable and lucrative career than writing, and never give her creative urges another thought?
Moreover, I wonder, could
Bell have had a husband or brother stationed in Africa or the Middle East, or could she herself have lived there? Her descriptions of being on a ship in harbor in Africa, and of Albert’s forays into the seedier parts of Algiers, are strikingly vivid (and form a sharp and effective contrast with Jasmine's naïve fantasies of these locales).
Is there any chance that we'll ever find answers to such questions? Alas, perhaps not. It's rather maddening to the obsessive-compulsive data-gatherer in me, I can tell you!
But at any rate, I am thankful to Greyladies for retrieving this novel from total obscurity and putting some copies into circulation so that I was able to stumble across it recently. It is now out-of-print again, but it's definitely worthy of being retrieved permanently. Perhaps Persephone or Capuchin or
Bloomsbury or some other savvy publisher should jump on it. It's certainly better than many of the novels that are reprinted time and again.
Can you tell I liked it? :-)
[If you haven't already, be sure to check out my subsequent post on Mary Bell's identity. The mystery, or part of it at least, has been solved.]
[If you haven't already, be sure to check out my subsequent post on Mary Bell's identity. The mystery, or part of it at least, has been solved.]