Thursday, September 18, 2014

ENA LIMEBEER, The Dove and Roebuck (1933) (and a tantalizing glimpse of her career as a painter)

I can't recall another occasion when I've had quite such a love/hate relationship with a novel as I had with The Dove and Roebuck

Now, ordinarily, if I don't like a book, I just don't write about it here (however much I may moan about it to Andy), because I figure that if it didn't speak to me, then I'm not the right person to discuss it, and it could be that I'm just too dense to "get" what the author was trying to do, so I should just toss it aside and shut up.  But in this case, I am really torn because there were both some achingly beautiful passages that made me think it could become one of my favorites, and some truly excruciating passages (by the end, there were times when I had to sit down and force myself to read two pages at a time).

The story—which definitely takes a back seat to the prose in both the beautiful and the excruciating passages—revolves around a village inn called, of course, The Dove and Roebuck.  The former innkeeper retires, and the inn is taken over by Sophie Hargreaves and her family—sister Doll, brother Joe, father John, son Philip, and husband Robert.  But Louisa, a ne'er-do-well cousin, is bitter because she wanted to run the inn herself, or at least be asked to share the business.  She possibly works to sabotage the inn's business—or perhaps she doesn't (clarity sometimes takes a back seat to prose stylings as well).  When the inn has fallen into dire straits, the family asks her to help.  

Initially, Louisa turns the business around and makes it thrive, but finally her violent temper and violent passions are her downfall, and will haunt the other characters for years to come.  Various other villagers appear here and there, and the perspective and style of the story keeps shifting, in loosely stream-of-consciousness form, from one character to another in a way that was perhaps rather influenced by Faulkner.  It's certainly a distinctly serious, distinctly highbrow novel (where the jacket flap gets the idea that there is a "backdrop of comedy" remains a mystery to me), and it was first published by the Woolves' Hogarth Press.

To begin with the positive, I'll say that, at her best, Limebeer evokes the deceptively simple, profound methods of storytelling used by one of my favorite recent authors, W. G. Sebald.  Sebald's novels are like elegant, achingly beautiful dirges which, though focused on heartrending themes like despair and madness, are somehow also entirely life-affirming.  Most of Sebald's novels are disguised as simple travelogues, in which the narrator wanders—usually in rather bleak areas that are shadows of their former glory—and encounters fascinating, often obsessive or tormented characters who seem like revenents from earlier times of prosperity and joy.  They are novels at all purely by dint of the themes that unite them. 

Perhaps the same could be said of The Dove and Roebuck.  Ironically, though, while some readers might find Sebald's loosely flowing, uneventful journeys too plotless for comfort (or too bleak), and although, as noted above, Limebeer's focus on plot is rather tentative, for me her novel's problem is that it still errs too much in the direction of plot and, well, what can only be called Romantic melodrama. 

Had Limebeer kept her attention focused on the brilliant, meandering surveillance of the various odd and heartbreaking characters of her village, as she does in the first third or so of the novel, and eschewed all attempts at describing a progression of events, The Dove and Roebuck might have wound up as one of my favorite novels (and would almost certainly have been a future selection of the Furrowed Middlebrow Book-of-the-Month Club).  Without a doubt Limebeer can write gorgeous prose, and she can capture the depth and complexity and fundamental disrepair of her characters' lives so vividly that you might find your heart aching for them. 

It's irrelevant to the review, but what's more
fun than finding a "circulating library" label
from a library in Salt Lake City, with a stamp
from 1933, in the front of a book?  Anyone
have grandparents who remember
Dwyer's Book Shop?

I have to give a fairly long example of what was for me the most powerful example.  Here is a description of Sophie's battle-scarred husband Robert, and a passage from a few pages later which seems to be from Robert's own perspective.  The abstraction with which life seems to unfold for him after the traumas of war is reflected in the "one" used to describe his thoughts and feelings, and even the third person "Richard" in one spot, and lines like "One was lying on one's face in the grass" evoke the work that Samuel Beckett would be doing not quite two decades later in his most famous trilogy of experimental novels:

When Sophie gets out of bed in the morning she says, "Why, man, go to sleep, do," for there is something about the eyes which troubles her. And when Doll teases her brother-in-law, saying that his smart town clothes remind her of a flunkey on holiday, he only smiles with his lips, a long curving graceful smile that expresses an almost unbelievable sweetness. But the eyes remain the same, as if, having gazed for some time at unforgettable scenes, they had lost all further powers of registration, the lenses themselves having no longer any inward vision, from a certain moment being paralysed. Only the objects around are reflected as in a mirror of dead blue glass.


The armies were marching! The armies were coming along! There was a glare like a gas-jet blowing, the flickering roar of the flame hanging in the little shop. The haystack was falling! Oh, peace! One was lying on one's face in the grass. The cows breathed in the darkness. And the stars shone. It was not that one could not tell anyone: it was that one was far away. One had not come back. One's sword was killing, one's gun was firing, the machines were roaring, the battalion was marching. And lost, like the spot of dark in the heart of the gas-jet, one followed after. One heard one's voice in a dream, crying, yelling, moaning, weeping. One gave Richard some water, one sold one's best treasure for safety. One skirmished, one ran, one crept, one burrowed, one poisoned, one rifled, one pillaged. One lay in a tent of dead men and thought of the water flowing. One wept for the grey river, and Tom and Lily.

It's a lovely bit of writing testifying to the horrifying residue of World War I.  Indeed, the novel might be worth tracking down just for such lovely passages. 

But, alas and alack, Limebeer wasn't quite prepared to be as radical as Beckett, and felt that this loveliness had to be united by a rather tedious plot in which the turmoils surrounding the village inn are tied up with the heavily symbolic image of Louisa as a Lorelei driving men to their doom.  


This is exacerbated by the fact that, while minor characters come alive vividly, Louisa herself never seems to come together convincingly.  She is volatile and tortured, though we never really know why, and she is unlikeable and rather unsympathizable (so to speak).  Perhaps my inability to get at her personality or what drives her is a testament to the complexity that Limebeer was trying to capture, but for better or worse this complexity remained, for me, flat on the page.

It's distinctly odd, too, after the beauty of some of the earlier passages, that Limebeer late in the novel seems frequently to sink into a sort of gushing Romantic prose, rather like an (even more) immature Byron:

Drum. Drum-a-drum. Why should a soldier die? Why, having escaped the anguish of battle, should he not dwell in peace for ever, watching the shining fields of the earth, enjoying the earth as he sought to make it? If the sword has not pierced, the gun not riddled, the shell not shattered, the tank not mangled, it is absurd to die in one's own home. Better the cry of the wounded than a resumption of normal life and early frustration. How bitter the plans, the dreams are then I One recalls the days when one lived by saying, "When I get home I will do this or that." But the cup of peace is at one's lips and lo! it is dashed speedily away.

Ahem.  Reading these passages—of which there are, sadly, many—was like swimming through molasses.

But there, that's enough negativity.  Now, on to something far more interesting.

I had been intending to read this novel since some time last year when I came across an intriguing review of it.  I have been particularly obsessed with novels of village life recently, and like to throw in the occasional story reflecting that not all English village life is like The Vicar of Dibley, any more than San Francisco is like an Armistead Maupin novel (though it is, sort of, at least part of the time).  So I suppose that The Dove and Roebuck, in the bleak view it offers of village life, is a bit of a counterbalance to all of those idealized, charming village tales.

Be that as it may, however, the immediate inspiration for finally making my Interlibrary Loan request for Limebeer's book was an exciting email I received a few weeks ago from Larry Smith of Devon, England, who had just acquired two lovely paintings from a seller at her local market, and had gone online to try to find out more about the artist—one Ena Limebeer.  As Limebeer has virtually no web presence outside of my blog, Larry found herself here, and emailed me to share her discoveries. 

An oil on canvas by Ena Limebeer (the first of her paintings that I know of
to appear online), courtesy of Larry Smith of Devon, England

From what I had managed to find out about Limebeer, I knew that after authoring her two novels in the early 1930s, she had focused primarily on painting, and had apparently developed a fair reputation, reportedly exhibiting paintings in the Paris Salon in the 1960s.  A Japanese Wikipedia page—one of the only online sources of information about Limebeer (and a search for it now to provide a link was unsuccessful)—reports that her works from the 1950s and 1960s are particularly sought after by collectors, but I hadn't been able to locate any information at all about the paintings themselves, so I was particularly excited that Larry was generous enough not only to email me pictures of the two paintings, but also gave her permission for me to share the pictures with you.

Now, obviously I'm not an art critic in any way, shape, or form, but I actually found both of Limebeer's paintings completely haunting and quite lovely in a bleak sort of way (not unlike the best parts of her fiction).  In fact, from my point of view, I would say that Limebeer, without doubt, made the right decision when she opted to focus on painting over a literary career!

Self portrait by Ena Limebeer,
courtesy of Larry Smith of Devon, England

I was also particularly thrilled to have seen the second painting Larry acquired, which seems to be a self-portrait of the elusive artist herself.  Considering the pathetic photo which was my only image of Limebeer previously (see here—I had harvested it from some periodical of the time, which obviously was not concerned with offering high-quality images as one of its attractions for readers), this one is an enormous improvement!

My warm thanks again to Larry for sending the photos and for allowing me to use them here.  She has since reported to me that she has acquired three more Limebeer paintings—watercolors this time.  So, Larry has single-handedly lit a fire under the Limebeer collectors' market in England! (Perhaps I could persuade Larry next to track down a painting or two by Celia Buckmaster, another author who wrote two novels—among my all-time favorites—and then turned to painting?)

I always like to leave you with a humorous quote from the book I'm reviewing.  In this case, however, that would hardly be fitting.  So, here instead is a rather memorable philosophical summation made by one of Limebeer's characters—somewhat eloquent in its determined bleakness:

Life was a thing one had once, a bold gay sort of thing. One flourished it and swore at it, wore it out and took care of it. And then it was over.

Now, isn't that an uplifting thought to be leaving you with?!


  1. NO comments on this comment-worthy post?

    I admit, I had a long comment composed, but decided it was too snarky (even for One) to post, peppered, as it was, with "One". Highly reminiscent of Cedric Hampton.

    1. Oh, Susan, I would have loved to read your snarky comment! Well, to be fair, it's unlikely anyone else has ever read Limebeer, so it's a pretty obscure post. I had hoped for some reaction to her paintings, though. Oh, well, it's the nature of blogging that I might hear from someone six months from now who's happy to have read this post, even if no one if particularly excited right now. "One" is always pleased to hear from "one's" readers!

  2. I have been trying to track Ena down for a couple of years. If anyone is interested I have 2 oils on canvas painted by Ena. I believe 1 has been
    hung at the Royal Academy.

    1. I don't know how I missed your comment initially, Jacqueline. Apologies for that. I just stumbled across it while linking to this post from the revised Overwhelming List I'm working on. If you ever see this comment, I'd love to see photos of your Limebeer paintings, if you're willing. Sorry to have missed you!

  3. Great to see Ena Limebeer being discussed on-line. I know her from another angle. Limebeer was married to the academic and international affairs expert David Mitrany (originally from Romania). They were a bit of a power couple (like the Woolfs, except that they have seemed to live an untroubled, if itinerant, life). My interest in Limebeer comes from my work on Mitrany's international thought (he was an original thinker, and very influential in his time).
    The British Library's edition of Mitrany's first book (on sanctions), has a handwritten note to Limebeer that I quote in one of my books:
    "If all people, my dear Ena, had something of your kind nature... then sanctions would be superfluous; and instead of spending so many hours on this barbarous subject, I could have passed them much more wisely in enjoying your presence."
    Luke Ashworth


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