Tuesday, September 10, 2013

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Footman for the Peacock (1940)


Since this was one of the novels that made me want to start this blog, it's probably high time that I get around to writing about it. I've actually already written a review of Ferguson's later novel A Stroll Before Sunset (1946), but then held off on posting it because for me this one is the better book overall.

Ferguson is still best-known for her classic The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931), reprinted by Virago in the 1980s and now available from Bloomsbury, and for Alas, Poor Lady (1937), available from Persephone.  It's surprising how much Ferguson evolved and changed as a writer even in the six years between those two works—the latter more serious and socially concerned than the light-hearted peculiarities of the former.  But she continued to evolve with Footman and Stroll, where her style becomes increasingly ornate and digressive—though Footman in particular is perhaps reminiscent of Brontës in its zanier tendencies.  I also have a copy of her debut novel, False Goddesses (1923), and am looking forward to seeing how her novice effort differs from her later work.

When A Footman for the Peacock first appeared in 1940, Margery Allingham gave it what Elizabeth Maslen calls a "reproachful" review in Time and Tide.  I haven't yet had a chance to locate the review in its entirety, but it's not hard to see that Ferguson's humorous approach to the war, including her loathsome aristocratic family's dodging of evacuees and lack of any concern whatsoever for the potential ravages of war, as well as their mocking critiques of government preparedness for the war, might have seemed a bit too much at a time when the outcome of the war would have been completely uncertain. 

More recently, scholar Jenny Hartley, in her wonderful Millions Like Us: British Women's Fiction of the Second World War (a crucial resource for anyone interested in the World War II home front), dismissed Footman as "snobbish" and concluded that "Ferguson seems to endorse the Roundelay view of class as a matter of 'caste' which 'permeates nearly everything.'"  I love Hartley's book (and she also edited the excellent anthology Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War), but I have to say my experience in reading the book was quite different from hers.

Although Ferguson has a reputation of having been politically conservative (ODNB provides this quote from her memoir We Were Amused, about her early suffragism: "The trouble about the vote is that it was unlawfully withheld far too long and ultimately bestowed far too lavishly," which perhaps doesn't exactly ooze loving kindness toward the lower classes), she is nevertheless also passionately concerned with social injustice.  Alas, Poor Lady, for example, examines—with what Persephone calls "furious anger"—the hardships of unmarried women in the early to mid 20th century, and does so with sensitivity and a critique of a world in which upper class women who failed to marry were constrained to a limbo of boredom and uselessness.  

This is not to claim that no snobbishness exists in her work, of course.  That might be a stretch to say about a good many of the writers I love most!  But I did feel, in reading A Footman for the Peacock for a second time, that there was quite a lot more going on than just snobbishness, and I certainly didn't feel that Ferguson was endorsing the Roundelay worldview.

Ferguson is a viciously funny writer.  Like Barbara Pym or Monty Python, Ferguson doesn't hesitate to satirize anyone and everyone in sight—no individual or institution is safe from her barbed wit, since probably no individual or institution is without idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies, and idiocies.  And for me, Footman, which features a Nazi-sympathizing peacock who is the reincarnation of a running footman literally run to his death by the casually cruel Roundelay family (I'm not kidding!), is the best and most hilarious (and at the same time perhaps the most brilliantly scathing) example of Ferguson's satire.

The book centers around the family of Sir Edmund Roundelay, who is unsure of why he was knighted.  He

believed it was a mistake, and had probably been a misreading of the list by a secretary (such things were more common than was suspected) or that the honour was possibly meant for old Edmund Rulley who had made a fortune in 1914 by supplying army huts at retail prices to the Government and then buying them all back after the war at wholesale rates for cricket pavilions for his own staffs.

His wife, Lady Evelyn, tries to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior by exploring restaurants not typically patronized by the gentry, but remains ultimately only superficially aware of the lives of anyone outside her immediate family.  Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn live with their two daughters, Margaret and Angela, and Edmund's three eccentric spinster aunts, Amethyst, Jacinth and Sapphire, as well a cousin, Major Dunston, and Nursie, the family's senile old nanny, whose introduction in the novel is one of its funniest passages:

Nursie ran true to type and was now slightly senile. She constantly asked the family or any passing servant which battle we were fighting now, a query that became progressively easier to answer, but she also believed that Queen Victoria still occupied the throne, and when assured à haute voix (Mr. Maxwell did best at this) that the present sovereign was King Edward, George the Fifth, Edward the Eighth, or George the Sixth, would shake her head and answer, "Ah, they'd never get rid of Her." Nursie also believed, and stated, that she had once seen King William the Fourth, when in service in London. If anyone pointed out to her that, if this were so, she must now be quite one hundred and thirteen years old, she would silence them for ever by announcing "I'm ninety and I've got my lines to prove it," upon which, and in spite of polite protestations of belief and congratulation she would toddle to a chest of drawers and soon transform her room, large though it was, into a lamentable jumble sale, at the very bottom of which, and when the floor was ankle‐deep in clothes, photographs, albums and various precious knicknacks the very purpose of some of which was baffling, her birth certificate would be discovered and handed round (only it was sometimes a wedding favour, and twice a funeral card).

Plot in this novel is at a minimum, and what little there is is often conveyed, as in other Ferguson novels, through long amusing digressions—whether on characters' histories and the family history overall, on architecture and servant problems, on the linguistic peculiarities of the residents of the nearby village of Rohan, or on Margaret Roundelays' researches into family members' experiences of the previous war.  I will say that some readers might find this stylistic strategy irritating, but I usually find that Ferguson's digressions explore topics I've never thought about and usually reveal fascinating background for her story.

Since Millions Like Us is concerned with literary representations of wartime conditions and culture, Hartley might have been most interested in the second half of the novel, when the war is underway and the Roundelays are merrily refusing to harbor refugees, gleefully dodging evacuees, and generally mocking the war efforts of those around them—from the servants who are seeking greater freedom and better treatment in factories to those who are trying to enforce blackouts, distribute gas masks, or provide for the safety of evacuated children.  (Indeed, if Ferguson had been taken at the time to be sympathizing with such behavior, I would have thought the novel might even have been censored, or at least have received a good many more "reproachful" reviews.)

By contrast, in the first half of the novel the approaching war is barely mentioned at all (highlighting the dithering, inbred obliviousness of the Roundelays to the realities around them), but for me, this section really forms the crucial foundation of the novel—as well as giving it its title. For amidst all of the digressions into family history, we also learn how Sir Edmund loves to take visitors on tours of the house, and the pièce de résistance of the tour is always, in the servants' quarters, a room on one window of which the words "Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke. 1792" have been scratched.  Sir Edmund loves that this part of the tour never fails to arouse the romantic fantasies of his guests (including such daft speculation as that it was "a last message of the Princes in the Tower"). Sir Edmund corrects them and complacently reveals the truth. Picocke, Sir Edmund says,

was, in point of fact, a running footman, his duty to footslog over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar, herald and warning to the approaching town or hamlet or to any pedestrian that the coach of his master was imminent, and that a way for it must instantly be cleared. Hardly human, the running footman was more in the nature of a social gesture to the world at large, an earnest of the importance of the family he served, a panting castemark. Without change of linen at the end of a heating run in all weathers, including winter's snows, the running  footman must wait for hours in the kitchen, steaming in front of the open hearth, before word was brought him via a chain of house servants, that his family above-stairs had concluded its visit. He then took staff and nerved himself for the return footslogging. Oh yes, these fellows, poor devils, died off like flies of consumption—the local graveyards were known to be peppered with them. Pay? Oh, five pounds a year, livery and all found. And, oh yes, it might interest Sir Edmund's visitors to know that the staff borne by these footmen possessed a metal cap at the tip in which was placed one hard boiled egg to sustain them during the runs.

Amazingly (to me), the running footman was a real type of servant in medieval England (and for some time later?), who really did run ahead of his master's carriage, on the lookout for obstacles and to alert those at the destination of the master's arrival and prepare his accommodations.  One can imagine, too, that they must really very often have led short, horrific lives.

Ferguson certainly seems to intend that the reader sympathize with the poor footman who was, for all intents and purposes, murdered by the custom of the day and the Roundelays' casual cruelty.  He is, in a real sense, the protagonist of the novel (even if he can't deliver glorious monologues in his present, peacock state).  We even see a humorously insensitive excerpt from the diary of a former lady of the house, who reports on her boredom during long carriage rides and coolly equates the footman with the horses:

[S]ometimes there is nothing to see for hours except hedges and fields and, if the road takes a curve, the footman running in front. I watch him out of sheer boredom and wonder when the horses will catch him up, as they sometimes do, which makes Marcus angry and the coachman sulky, and shout at him. Once, he actually got left behind by the coach and Marcus said if it happened again he'd have to go. And, of course, it does look bad to arrive in a village and see your courier whooping for breath in a ditch fifty yards behind, as if the horses sat down suddenly and refused to stir.

But it's Lady Evelyn's discovery of an old song, still sung in the nearby village of Rohan, which highlights the fact that the present Roundelays too—with the possible exception of the youngest daughter, Angela—remain as oblivious to the suffering of others as they have ever been.  Evelyn hears the song performed by the farrier of Rohan, and imagines that its subject is a fox hunt.  The song goes (in part):

Run, running runner, run,
The horses o'ertake you
Though breath shall forsake you,
Run, running runner, run.
Run, running runner, run,
The hoofbeats are gaining,
Lungs bursting and straining:
Run, running runner, run.

Run, running runner, run,
Is there sweat on your breast?
(They are nearing the crest)
Run, running runner, run.
Bodies are cheap, are cheap,
One body for a noble,
Two bodies for a noble,
Three bodies for a noble
(Run, running runner, run).

Evelyn is haunted by the song—in part perhaps because the suffering of others hasn't been made suitably catchy for her enjoyment (!!):  "Possibly its dreadfulness is just due to the fact that it's all wrong from the lyricist's point of view: no neat verse and chorus with everything tied up in an effective bow at the end. As it is, it's just a tussock of raw suffering."  She distances herself further from that suffering by blaming the farrier for inflicting the song on her ("It was, she thought, as though over the years he had been concealing his real nature from her. Treacherous, almost...or at least unfriendly") and by reassuring herself that such cruelty only existed in the distant past.

The "unfriendliness" of the farrier who brings the song to her attention is, by the way, strikingly echoed a short while later when the peacock (the reincarnation of the tragic footman) begins acting aggressively and a plan is made to give him to a neighbor.  The kitchenmaid, who, we discover, is the descendant (and presumed reincarnation) of Thomas Picocke's lover, is upset at the prospect (and jealous when Evelyn mentions the peahens who will keep him company on the neighbor's estate).  Evelyn explains:

"But we don't want him, Sue. I'm sorry if he's your pet" (for some reason the girl winced at this), "but can't you look at it from the poor thing's point of view? He must be fearfully lonely here, that's probably why he's so unfriendly to everybody."

"Unfriendly?" Sue clenched her hands in her apron...

Any expression of the suffering of others seems, to Evelyn, "unfriendly."

In lieu of a dust jacket, an appropriately "unfriendly"-looking
(possibly Nazi-sympathizing?) peacock

This, then, is where we are in the novel when the war breaks out, and these revelations of the Roundelays' history of callous disregard, and the insight into Evelyn's ultimately superficial and abstract sympathy for the mistreated, are meant, I think, to cast their light on the loathsome family's arrogant indifference in the face of war.  Which fortunately doesn't make them any less hilarious, and the novel is joyous in highlighting all of their imbecilic hypocrisy and meanness of spirit.

Even in the very funny passage where Nursie's deranged behavior finally convinces the poor evacuee billeting officer to permanently exempt them from hosting evacuees, I was struck by the glimpse Ferguson gives us of the realities that the Roundelays ignore, describing the officer's day trying to find homes for evacuees:

Mr. Mallet reddened. He had had an appalling day, ranging from tears to threats and abuse. He had helplessly placed a girl of nine in the care of a hard-faced woman who admitted she hated all children; had put, willy‐nilly, two more into an unventilated cottage where the elder would have to share bed with an asthmatic of seventy‐two, he had even suspected a case of whooping‐cough in the boy he had installed with a young married couple with a six‐months‐old baby...his own underclothes felt prophetically acrawl...

This is an overly long analysis, but it's because I wanted to try to convey why I think this is not only a highly enjoyable novel, but also perhaps a really significant one.  It seemed to me to be a very serious (albeit hilarious—as perhaps all really serious novels should be?) exploration of a long tradition of cruelty, and one which is perhaps as much modernist as middlebrow, as Ferguson is, in her way, a highly experimental, intellectual writer whose work is characterized by layer upon layer upon layer of irony.  Ultimately, the war here is perhaps just grist for Ferguson's mill, another way of showing the Roundelays in the worst possible light, and her casual use of a very real war—in a frighteningly early and uncertain phase—as a mere piece of a larger theme, was perhaps a little too coolly intellectual for a wartime literary world understandably dominated by gung-ho characters with can-do attitudes, or by thrillers wherein the bad guys always lost.

But what was perhaps too "in your face" in its time may be enjoyed now for its mix of zaniness and a real analysis of exploitation and indifference.  And so that I don't lose track of how genuinely funny the book is, here are a couple of random glimpses. When the war begins, the older daughter Margaret writes to her German friend Ortrud.  After numerous unintentionally insensitive remarks about the war, Margaret reaches a climax of dim-witted tactlessness:

My dear, this is just a line to hope you and your mother and Mr. Bohm are all well and reasonably happy. I see in the newspapers that you've been short of butter and stand in queues for ages. We aren't, yet, and don't: You'd never know there was a war impending here, any more than you did in the last one, and I can guess how you must be missing fats, because—

Margaret leant back, appalled, and murmured "Glory!"

And later, Major Dunston tells of his mother's new obsession with the Second Coming, and Aunt Jessie ponders the meaning of it:

"It's The Second Coming, now. ... It's been The New Messiah for some time. Goes to meetings full of Indian pansies. Beats me."

Miss Jessie compressed her lips and rose. It was a great pity that Chrissy, one's own sister, should make a travesty of sacred subjects and lay herself open to getting talked about like that. Maxwell was far from young, but he was still only a nephew. About the actual question of this New Messiah of Chrissy's, Jessie herself refused to be drawn into discussion though she had once written to her sister and pointed out that we had one already therefore there could not be another. Surely Chrissy would understand all the things behind that reminder: that one had not been able, of reverence, to bring oneself to write? That if there were two, what was to be done with the first one and where did religion stand if Christ was, after all, the wrong one? Though to decorate the meetings with pansies was a pretty idea enough.

The last line can still make me laugh after at least ten readings.  (And Ferguson's rather odd perspective on gay men, which will come up in my review of A Stroll Before Sunset, makes me wonder if that line might not be a subtle mockery of Major Dunston's blasé homophobia.)

By the way, it's actually not completely impossible to track down copies of A Footman for the Peacock.  I managed to get it from the library, and a few copies do crop up now and then at online booksellers.  It's not likely to be cheap, but for what it's worth, I can't think of very many books it would be more worthwhile to splurge on!

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