Tuesday, September 3, 2013

CELIA BUCKMASTER, Family Ties (1952)

Celia Buckmaster would have been 37 years old when this book, her second and final novel, was published.  She lived another 53 years, but apparently never felt the urge to write fiction again—or, if she did, never published it.  It may be that her painting, with which she was already actively engaged at the time of her marriage in 1940, simply took the upper hand again.  I do know—from biographical sources about her husband, Sir Edmund Leach—that she continued with her painting for much of the rest of her life, so that may have simply been her creative outlet of choice. (Sadly, though, I haven't been able to locate information about even a single one of her paintings online, but if anyone reading this happens to know about them, please contact me.)  Or perhaps she developed writer's block or had publisher woes or wanted or needed to dedicate her time to her family. 

Whatever the reason for Buckmaster's sparse output, it is rather sad, because the two novels she did produce seem to me to be rather extraordinary.  It's difficult to sum up a writer who produced only two novels, but it seems that there are some distinctive qualities that identify a "Buckmaster," just as there are with a "Pym" or a "Taylor" or a "Murdoch."

The themes of Family Ties are similar to those in Village Story.  Buckmaster portrays various characters in the same kind of village setting—it could be the same village, though a different use has been put to the former manor—occupied here by a girls' school, rather than by well-off strangers.  She focuses on their various tensions and discontentments, some more serious than others, but all presented deftly and elegantly and with subtle humor which sometimes can't be properly appreciated until read a second time.  It's possible to imagine Buckmaster, as Pym does, for example, going on and on with these themes and settings and similar types of characters, simply varying her scenarios and the types of human behavior into which she wants to delve, and each novel would have been entertaining and profound in its own way.  Perhaps, had this happened, she would even be as widely read as Barbara Pym.  Perhaps Buckmaster's obscurity as a novelist has resulted from the fact that there just simply isn't enough of her to go around?

In addition, it finally dawned on me (I can be rather slow sometimes) that one peculiarity of a "Buckmaster" is that it takes place in mythological time.  It's odd that I didn't realize this reading Village Story, but in neither novel is there any reference to the year.  Both novels occasionally jump forward or backward in time with nary a mention of any major historical event.  Though published only a few years after World War II, the war does not seem to have happened in the world of the novels, and even the leaps into the future—as when we learn in an aside what will happen when a very living character has died—don't seem to be aware of war as a possibility.  However, even in this world, the gentry are dying off and impoverished, women seem to be free to go to work if they choose (though most do not), and the cultural "feel" seems to me to fit the early 1950s when the novels were written.

Is this denial of history in the novels a strength or a weakness?  I tend to think the former, but it's certainly open for discussion.  As much as I would have loved to hear what these characters had thought and felt during the war years, the fact that they seem to have their own little world really does add a sort of mythical, universal quality to even the mundane events portrayed.  It seems like an intentional strategy of Buckmaster's, but it is, admittedly, somewhat surprising when one (finally, in my case) thinks about it.

I quoted the opening line of Village Story and I can't resist doing the same here.  Buckmaster is great at sucking you right into her world:

Mr. Monsoon was known in the village as "the old gentleman," and nobody minded when he said, "Amen, Amen, Amen," when the prayers got too long on Sunday morning; people knew he had rheumatism, and in any case the Vicar was apt to ramble on and on. He kept the sermons short too by sighing and clearing his throat after a certain time. But when the old Vicar died and a new one came, all this was changed. The old Vicar had always chosen something out of the Old Testament as a text for his sermon, and generally preached about woe and destruction. This was comforting for his congregation, who knew what to expect, and it had suited the tone of his voice, which had been low and quivering and full of poetic emotion. The new Vicar was quite different and spoke about "Conditions in the modern world" in his sermons (with a text taken from the New Testament) and nobody knew what he was driving at. Besides which, he used his normal everyday tone of voice in the pulpit and was apt to say—"And that means You and You and You" (pointing)—which made everyone nervous.

Buckmaster announces to the reader that Mr. Monsoon is the hero of the story, just as she did with Mrs. Ethelburger in the earlier novel, but in both cases it may be difficult to see exactly what is meant by the terms "hero" and "heroine"—and that in itself could be meaningful.  Neither character is completely likeable, though they are certainly interesting.  Mr. Monsoon, who lives with his wife, two sons, and two daughters-in-law, has squandered the family fortune and mortgaged their home to the extent that they may lose it altogether.  He attempts—not very effectively—to dominate his family, and he has somewhat romantic feelings for Amy, one of his daughters-in-law.  He likes provoking people into arguments, particularly their gardener, Mr. Smith, who "used to drink but got Saved and is rather pompous because of this, and tells little children about the Devil and idle hands."  And he has some rather unusual viewpoints, such as this one expressed in regard to Amy's discontentment with her husband:

"But this really does worry me," Mr Monsoon said. "I can't stand unhappy women. Men can always do something like big-game hunting when the worst comes to the worst. Or take up politics. But it's different for your sex. They grieve. And I can't stand it. When women get really unhappy I always feel that, like animals, they should be put out of their misery."

Although Amy's restlessness and eventual involvement with another man are probably the main plot thread, the real attraction for me, as in the earlier novel, is the wide array of supporting players, most brilliantly characterized even if their significance to the plot is trivial.  There is, for example, Mrs. Tyce, the widow of the old lord of the manor, who "is past eighty and so is able to look back on a long life more than half of which she has spent being horribly bored," and who passes the time now by sending anonymous letters (though written in her distinctive hand, so everyone knows who they're from). 

And there are my personal favorites, the Rockabys, particularly the superficial but well-meaning Mrs. Rockaby, who

was less fortunate than Amy. She had rather a lot of wrinkles, but called them laughter lines. Whatever they were she put grease on them from a little jar every night. She believed in the grease. It was very expensive and smelt horrible and when it got in her eyes, as it sometimes did, it stung. So after putting it on she always tried to get to sleep as soon as possible. It was said of her in London, where she much preferred to live, that it was ridiculous to think of her as the mother of a grown-up son. And, going about arm-in-arm with Bertram as she frequently had, that they looked more like brother and sister than mother and son. This made it all the harder to leave London because nobody said things like that in the country and in this remote little village where she now lived it seemed hardly worth while to keep on being young. But it was so much part of her life at the age of forty that Mrs Rockaby couldn't stop it. She went on bursting into fits of laughter, smiling dreamily and walking quickly, humming and tossing her head (she had her hair cut in the very latest style) all because in that way she felt she could keep herself young. And one day, somehow or other, she hoped to get back to London and hear her friends say, "Why, Evelyn, you haven't altered a bit."

There is perhaps a bit more humor in Family Ties than in Village Story, but here too it is always made to serve its point, as in this description of the sitting-room of the pretentious, cold-blooded Mr. Swan, who has returned from travel in exotic locales and set himself (as if it were an item on his "to do" list) to marry the Rockabys' daughter:

Thus in his sitting-room on the mantelpiece a large Buddha—so large that it is apt to intimidate his guests—stares over the top of people's heads with wide metallic eyes on to the far wall where spears and battle ornaments are hung. Deities with too many arms stand about on little tables next to ashtrays which belonged to. Temples once, and sometimes when nostalgic and remembering the magic of the East, Mr. Swan even lights joss sticks. This makes the place smell odd, and his housekeeper, Mrs. Henlow, who comes in every day from the village, sniffs and starts a search behind the sofa and in all the corners; but Ting the Siamese cat is neutered and perfectly clean.

Not only does the hodge-podge of (mostly pillaged, apparently) decorations tell a lot about Mr. Swan's total superficiality and indifference to their history or meaning—I love that the Buddha must gaze across the room at the weapons of war—but Mrs. Henlow's reaction to his attempt to recreate "the magic of the East" is just hilarious.

And just one more longish quote of many I could read over and over again.  Here is poor Mr. Monsoon trying to outsmart a heron who's eating the trout with which Mr. Monsoon has carefully stocked the river:

So every morning early when it appeared, he would dodge out along the path through the wood with his gun, in order to surprise and shoot the bird when he came out, very carefully, at the far side by the river. But always when he got there, the heron had disappeared. To attack it frontally from the house was no good because directly the bird saw anyone coming through the garden it lifted its enormous wings and flapped off.

"The damn thing must have a sixth sense," Mr. Monsoon would say, very saddened when time after time he had made his manreuvre through the wood to no purpose. But in fact it was Mrs. Monsoon who saw to it that the bird disappeared before destruction could overtake it. As soon as her husband left the house and was safely among the trees, she grabbed hold of a tablecloth or an apron or whatever was handy and waved it vigorously out of the dining-room window.

"Just shaking out crumbs, dear," she said when George asked once what on earth she was up to.

Clearly, Buckmaster is not a plot-based writer, which is one of the things I love about her.  Her focus is on characters and their revealing interactions, how they constantly misunderstand and frustrate one another (and yet they nevertheless go on and manage—usually—to find some meaning or emotional connection or, at the very least, a method of enduring). 

I'm feeling happy that I spontaneously decided to request Buckmaster's books when I read Nicola Beauman's mention of her.  She's now one of my favorites.

Just one final quote.  This was only a bit of description that struck me as vivid and clever.  But as I've re-read it, I wonder if it's not almost a summing up of Buckmaster's approach to fiction?

The gentle sound of the pigeons cooing came in from the garden, a continual murmuring sound that was always there but did not strike the ear; like people talking together of grief, voicing their troubles unemphatically, without malice and so without despair, forgetting they are in company.

Perhaps that's a stretch?  But anyway, it's a darn good sentence…

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