Monday, June 15, 2015

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Stroll Before Sunset (1946)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: There are few things I love more than a distinctly odd writer.  I think of Barbara Comyns' quietly and hilariously morbid portrayals of childhood, or Ivy Compton-Burnett's bizarrely formal, dialogue-ridden novels of Victorian family life, Sylvia Townsend Warner's gleefully subversive early works, or even the often nonsensical but endlessly fascinating mysteries written by Gladys Mitchell about her witchy, snake-like, and sometimes pterodactyl-like psychiatrist detective, Beatrice Lestrange Bradley.  All of which are among my favorites.

Without a doubt, Rachel Ferguson can match these writers oddness for oddness, and I love her for that.  In her memoir, Ferguson reports that a critic said of her debut novel, False Goddesses (1923), that it was ‘one of the two oddest books he had ever come across’ (how I wish I knew what the other was!), and goes on to add that when working on her second, The Brontës Went to Woolworth's (1931, formerly a Virago reprint, now available from Bloomsbury), which blurs reality and fantasy in an entertaining tale of three daughters of an eccentric artistic family, Ferguson herself felt the book was ‘getting so odd that I'm rather frightened of it.’ 

By 1937's Alas, Poor Lady (a Persephone reprint), the oddness was perhaps more muted or located mainly in the novel's structure—relating how the ruins of World War I and economic and social shifts resulted in the impoverished gentlewoman who is the novel's main character.  But when we come to A Footman for the Peacock (1940), my own favorite of all of Ferguson's novels (and one I already wrote about here a while back), which tells of the hilariously disreputable reactions of an aristocratic rural family to the onset of World War II, the oddness is back in full force—including the peacock of the title, who appears to be the Nazi-sympathizing reincarnation of a footman who died of exhaustion at the hands of the family’s ancestors.

Understandably, then, I hardly knew what to expect when jumping a few years later in Ferguson's career to A Stroll Before Sunset.  Except that it would be odd, of course, and in that area, at least, it certainly did not disappoint.

Ferguson's prose, for example—always on the ornate and elliptical side—is at its most opaque here, even—for better or worse—to the extent of becoming at times nearly impenetrable.  Take this rather nebulous (or perhaps brilliant?) passage about the various reactions to a goodbye performance by a beloved risque stage performer, which I had to read at least three times to unpack:

Of the dispersed audience from the Carry Blare matinee, some were enduring a similar deflation and stirring-up, others, tipsily stimulated, had reached the optimistic stage, at least one had made up her mind, and a horrified decision to Put It Up To Father and Mother had been arrived at by several more.  The art of one robust personality had, furthermore, given an artist the necessary courage to scrap his latest canvas, sufficient of vision to cause the girl who thought she could write a book to realize how mistaken was that notion: worked upon a wife to the point of condonement and reconciliation with her husband—a scene to which she looked forward with self-contempt and pleasurable anticipation, and brought a bride to the conviction that a smashing row with her groom would be a nice change.  It had revealed to the little grey-eyed dowd in the pit in one, final, agonizing flash, the fact, fought off for thirty-five years, that she was plain, and that the eye of man would never look upon her except, at best, in the way of kindness: stimulated a sub-editor to ask for what he called a raise, and caused a titled dowager, nodding plumed toque to the measure of ‘I’ve had a Tiddly’, to resolve to bow to local feeling at last and permit a pageant in the grounds of her country seat, and even, later, to consider with lenience the ceding of that right of way through the coppice, which was an undeniable short cut to the Bath Road.

Whew!  Perhaps Google Translate would be useful here?  It's actually a rather lovely passage, but certainly a bit dense. And there were several other passages to which, I confess, even repeated rereads failed to bring clarity.

Giving a clear idea of the plot is similarly challenging.  Centered around the theatrical world of the early Edwardian years, the novel focuses by turn on two main sets of characters: first, two aging actresses—the sharp-tongued, Bette Davis-like Grania Summet, who has alienated most of her colleagues and critics with her viciously hilarious insults and who is gradually descending into unemployed poverty, and Georgina Dempster, who, as Grania puts it, "would make a brothel into a Cranford parlour in ten minutes, while in her presence orchids and red roses would turn into buttercups and daisies, so basically nice was she"; and second, Reginald Nash, who has written a play which, with the help of sister Mary, he is trying to have produced (focused on a much desired but staunchly resisted adultery, and sounding impossibly turgid and dull), and their friend Lionel Dalton, a very unusual character who appears to be actually a somewhat effeminate heterosexual, stereotypically fitting society's notions of a gay men (at least in the years immediately after the Oscar Wilde trial) without actually being one. 

These main characters are supported by a whole troupe of supporting players, many of them brilliantly drawn.  Too long to quote here is a passage in which Flyte, an armchair psychoanalyst whose country house Grania wants to purchase, stops her sexual advances by describing in minute and clinical detail her neurotic need to assert herself sexually, leaving Grania hilariously speechless and deflated (and forever resentful of Flyte).  There's also the charmingly ditzy Mrs. Nash, who isn't sure she sees that questions of Lionel's sexuality have any relevance to whether Mary should marry him or not; Georgina's unfaithful stockbroker husband; and Grania's housekeeper, who rambles in a dizzyingly irrelevant way about her personal life. 

And what to make of Grania's occasional mention of her dear friend Dorian Gray?  Is she imagining that Wilde's character is "real" or has Ferguson actually made him so in the world of the novel?  As Grania descends into poverty, for example, she says of her need for a new guest mattress: “The present one is rather a case of blossom by blossom the spring appears.  Dorian Gray said that when he’d slept on it."  Get it?  Mattress?  Spring?  It took me longer than I would like to admit to understand the joke…

In the same kind of way, it isn't easy to understand how the various charming and vivid bits and pieces of this novel come together.  Apart from a brief period when Lionel finds happiness and a lack of prejudice in designing dresses for Grania, the main characters never really interact, and their separate plots never intertwine.  The novel meanders through fascinating set pieces on Edwardian theatre, the logistics of playwriting, Georgina’s acting school and Grania's resentment at not being asked to teach, Grania's hilarious confrontation with a debt collector, and Lionel's parents' befuddlement at his attention to flowers and women's attire (and—though he can apparently box with the best of them—his concern for not staining the carpets in the process).

But what actually comes of it all?

It's a difficult question for me—not least because I don't usually put much of a premium on plot or the overarching "deeper meaning" of a novel.  Generally, that a novel is entertaining and offers fascinating detail on life in a particular place and time—both certainly true here—is quite sufficient for me. 

Here, though, it seems apparent that Ferguson was striving for a bit more of a "statement."  In her other works mentioned above—particularly Alas Poor Lady and A Footman for the Peacock—she was, in the midst of all the humor, quite seriously concerned with tracing the impacts of historical economic and cultural shifts on real people’s lives.

Something of that nature is certainly going on here as well.  The "stroll before sunset" of Ferguson's title may have multiple meanings, but one is certainly the idyllic years before the shattering cultural impacts of World War I.  This theme might even be summed up in the following passage:

In those years which wound up triumph for its Dempsters and Highland Summets and security for the families of England, its children could not be expected to know that in the next quarter-century their epoch would come to seem as remote as that of the Tudors, and that to possess an aunt who had habitually rung a bell for a servant to mend the fire was to have kinship with a museum piece.

And this passage a few pages later might have come straight from Ruth Adam's history of women's changing roles, A Woman's Place:

The irony of all wars is that, spectacularly, they are not a woman’s concern, while remaining in most essentials her responsibility in their results, affecting her long after official hostilities are over and her menfolk have once more assumed civilian life.

But somehow, this theme of the passing of a kind of golden age, of a cultural innocence, and perhaps of a dawning realization of mortality by two aging actresses, doesn't quite cover everything that's happening here. 

In particular, for me, what on earth is one to make of Lionel, who ends up—as if to fully live up to the stereotype of a gay man of his time period (and, in too many cases, in our time as well)—committing suicide, apparently because his love for women's fashion and embroidery sets him forever beyond the pale?  (Lucky for me I'm not Edwardian, I guess, since with my love of books with lush details of women's domestic ablutions—I might have faced considerable social pressures as well.)

To give an idea of the peculiarities of Lionel's character as Ferguson describes him, here are a few short quotes.  On Lionel's relationship with his older brothers:

They had never spoken the same, or indeed any, language he recognized, and it wasn’t only seniority which separated them. It seemed to be something about which Lionel himself could do nothing … and as he grew older and older-brotherly snubbings fell into disuse, for by that time young Lionel could punch a nose or jaw with the best, subjects for differences of outlook multiplied rather than disappeared.

Reginald wrestling with what he sees as conflicting aspects of Lionel's character:

They’d partially stripped together upstairs, he and Dalton, and the chap’s muscles were like bantam’s eggs.  Yet he’d finicked about mice and sinks, and—good God!—pins and ruffles on a woman’s dress…

Mrs. Nash's talk to Mary about possibly marrying Lionel:

‘Well, then…’ Mrs Nash returned to her vase.  ‘You see, the only thing against it that I can see is that Reggie isn’t very keen on him.  That may be a queer sort of jealousy, of course…but you wouldn’t let that stand in the way?'

By the way, I know that, in gay circles, the word "queer" already had a sexual meaning as far back as the 1920s, though it doesn't seem to have been used much in more mainstream literature until the Fifties.  Was Ferguson savvy enough in her contacts with the theatrical world and, presumably, a fair number of gay men, to know the "new" meaning?  Who can say?  But either way, it's interesting that in this passage the "queerness" seems to be on Reggie's side—it's his jealousy that is queer (in whichever sense of the word), not Lionel's behavior?

Then there's Lionel telling Mary about his difficulties relating to people, and her own rather odd—if startlingly and absurdly funny—thought process as a result:

‘I tried to tell you from the start that people, most people, don’t like me.  It’s as though I don’t fit into some pattern they take for granted.’

‘You might as well know that all those gros point cushions in our drawing-room that you admire, I did myself.  We don’t allude to them, and my father doesn’t know.’

From memory’s ragbag a disastrous item retailed by facetious mistress detached itself for Mary’s inspection.  George the Third had embroidered too.  Also at Kew.  And when he was insane.

That’s quite a connection to make, and surely Ferguson is to some extent mocking such paranoia.

Then, the amateur psychoanalyst, Flyte, gives his rather handy diagnosis that Lionel's parents wanted a daughter so badly that his personality was forever affected by their desires.  Which, like many amateurish diagnoses, might open up more questions than it would answer.

And, in a rather disturbing flashback to Lionel’s childhood, we learn that, at school (nicknamed, appropriately enough, "Nellie" by his classmates), he makes friends with another homesick boy, only to lose him to an apparent fling with the football captain.  Lionel spots the boy, Charles, with the football jock's arm across his shoulder, and the boy's face reflects "the look, did Lionel know it, sometimes seen upon the faces of new-made brides: bliss combined with helpless revulsion, top-dressed with the grin which convention imposed." 

I confess I don't quite know how to interpret Ferguson's rather strange portrayal of Lionel's mix of masculine and feminine characteristics, but she spends quite a lot of time exploring it and it's undoubtedly edgy for its day. Meanwhile, how he fits into this rather rambling, highly digressive tale of the Edwardian theatre world remains as much a mystery as his gender uncertainties.  So I guess I've been digressing about him as well, and perhaps with equal pointlessness!

A Stroll Before Sunset is certainly not—at least on a first reading—my favorite Ferguson novel.  It is, in fact, probably my least favorite of those I’ve read.  But (and you know there’s always a “but” with me!), it is also true that it is more thought-provoking and enigmatic than any of her other works.  I will likely revisit it, and wrestle some more with its idiosyncrasies.  Indeed, perhaps I like enigmas almost as much as I like oddities! 

And just remembering this and mulling it over a day or two ago led me to do an Abe Books search, "just to see what they have" (yeah, right), which led to the exciting discovery of an affordable copy of one of Ferguson's most obscure titles, The Late Widow Twankey, written during World War II but so obscure that I've never been able to find anything about its themes. (I'd be willing to place a bet that it will be odd, however.)

To leave you, as I like to do, on a high note, here is one of many amusing, appropriately ornate, and unquestionably odd passages.  This is the formidable Grania pondering her acquisition of a country estate (primarily as a status symbol) and the prospect of life outside of London:

It was dull. Quiet watch and not a mouse stirring. And there was nothing to look at except views; the pull of sex was represented by an ancient with whiskers, and manure on his boots; champagne was unprocurable at whim, and cider, said Grania, gave her wind, and she would smile and quote (ough, Western wind why wilt thou blow…). And then, while you were already angry, it rained with stupid, bovine persistence, and lashed the fury higher, and you were cut off from the world, the flesh and the railway station. In the post office they read your telegrams, a ruse that Grania countered with wires so uncomplimentary in their Shakespearean forthrightness that several villages had become too hot to hold her, since no legal action for libel could in such circumstances be taken. And the W.C. was terribly apt to be in the back garden, raked by the Bar Parlour.


  1. did u borrow or buy this rarity?

    1. This one was also a surprisingly affordable purchase, John, after I'd enjoyed A Footman for the Peacock so much. The cover scan above is of my copy.

  2. Hi Scott – I read Widow Twankey last year, before reading Peacock, I believe. It's definitely odd, a jeu d'esprit and a tour de force rolled into one, about a vicar's wife who teams up with an American psychoanalyst to study inhabitants of an English village, all of whom are stock characters straight out of panto. Ferguson works her genius for pastiche in putting the characters through their paces, endowed with only limited self-knowledge. The oddness serves as defamiliarization to point up the book's big theme, I thought, that we're all basically playing out scripted roles that have been acted many times before. (It reminded me of an older novel, Marie Cher's The Immortal Gymnasts – which however drew on commedia dell'arte rather than pantomime.) WWII goes on in the background of Twankey, popping up mainly in comic songs Ferguson has her people break into at the drop of a hat.
    - Grant Hurlock

    1. Well, that certainly sounds odd enough, Grant! Thank you for the teaser--I'm even more excited that my copy arrived in the mail yesterday, very much beat up and bedraggled, but perfectly readable. And I will have to look more closely at Marie Cher, too. I've not heard of her before.


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