Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book report: Beatrix Lehmann

This is not a review. This is not a review. This is not a review.

I will keep telling myself that, and keep trying to rein in my wilder impulses of wordiness.

My recent fling with several Viragos has given me several very worthwhile reads (and seems to be ongoing). My favorite of the bunch remains E. H. Young's Miss Mole, which I wrote about not long ago. But not too far behind—on my second shelf, if not the top one—was Beatrix Lehmann's Rumour of Heaven (1934).

But be that as it may, I certainly don't think Rumour is a perfect novel—it is a bit uneven, and some parts are better than others—but when it's good I actually found it rather amazing. The opening chapter, which sets the stage and introduces William Peacock, his ballerina wife Miranda, and his three children, Clare, Viola, and Hector, and explains how they ended up isolated on the southern coast of England (Cornwall, I'm guessing), made me forget where I was and what I was doing (fortunately I was lying in bed, rather than missing a train or a flight, or forgetting to go to work). The novel thoroughly creates a fairy tale world—fantastic and fascinating, but also somehow grounded in reality, in coherent if gloriously odd characters, so that it begins to seem entirely plausible that three small children could have grown to the brink of maturity living basically in feral (if more or less intellectual) isolation on the southern coast of England, with only the feeblest of attempts at intervention from the outside world.

The plot, as one might expect from such a scene-setting, revolves around the reactions of these marooned characters to the arrivals of several new characters. (The outside world always has a habit of intruding on our private paradises, does it not?) The children's reactions, in particular, are brilliantly done, and contain some excellent descriptions of anxiety and its manifestations, and how it can drop on one's head when one was, a moment before, perfectly content and relaxed. Here's one sample, describing Hector's fascination for young Tony, and his horror when he finds himself trapped inside a room with strangers:

When Tony closed the door Hector wanted to scream, but he could only edge to the window  and seat himself on a chair as near the fresh air as possible. His pale face in profile against the open window was like a cameo in a frame.

Paul gave him a puzzled look and said something quite gently. He was always kind to sick people and children.

But Hector could only hear a confused murmur and he refused to turn his head to look at the prison that had closed around him. Silently he cried out for help.

The descriptions of the family's wild paradise sometimes become a bit lush for my taste, though that might be an intentional bit of self-parodying on Lehmann's part, since one of the invaders of their marvelous isolation is a bestselling author whose work is entirely built up around lavish descriptions of a lost paradise island that he insists is real, though no one believes him. And I also found the invaders, as characters, to be less interesting than the family itself, so the novel lost a bit of momentum in the middle before events begin to hurtle toward their tragic but inevitable conclusion. But these are really only quibbles about what is a compelling and fascinating novel—and, by the way, a quite self-consciously Bronte-esque one—Wuthering Heights is never far in the background (and indeed is quite often in the foreground).

Now, you know how much I love the quest to read an obscure and hard-to-find book, so when I finished Rumour of Heaven and decided I quite liked it, I immediately turned my attention to Lehmann's only other novel, published two years before Rumour. Of course, that novel, But Wisdom Lingers (1932), had never been reprinted and was apparently held by exactly one American library apart from the Library of Congress. Most of you know me well enough by now to see that such obscurity immediately made the book irresistile to me. I wondered not only what Lehmann's first foray into fiction would be like, but also why Virago chose not to reprint it. Was it just less polished and less mainstream, or was it (as I rather hoped) even odder than Rumour, so that it fell beyond Virago's scope?

Happily, that one library, at the University of North Carolina, was willing to lend the book, and so I got my hot little hands on it and made short work of reading it. So what was the verdict?

Well, I can safely say that I completely understand Virago's decision not to reprint it. I think that no matter how you slice it, it's a weaker novel than Rumour. It's a melodramatic little tale about a tormented artist and his tormented love for a step-aunt (??—well, he's an orphan who was raised by a cousin, and his love is for the much younger sister of the cousin who raised him, so what on earth would that relationship be called?), who is more than a little tormented herself. In short, there is plenty of torment to go around.

Now, a little bit of navel-gazing, soul-searching, intellectual moaning goes a long way with me, and so there were parts of But Wisdom Lingers that lost me a bit. Here's a sampling:

What if he resisted this desire to please them at the expense of his own soul. … ? Well, what then? Who would listen to the raging fount of words dammed up in his brain? How could he express the thoughts that nagged and teased at his peace of mind? Where was the source from which these things flowed? Back through the winding tributaries to truth. … Who cared for truth? Every thought was stale, world-soiled. … The poets—word-mongers—had woven all his thoughts into hackneyed quotations. … Easier to learn their words than strive to make new bottles for old wine. Nobody wanted the truth—they only wanted your help to crush it, forget it—dancing over the scattered dust of truth.

Oh, my.  You see what I mean?

Sample pages from the prologue of But Wisdom Lingers

But that said, there are also places that clearly preview how much better Lehmann would become as a writer in a mere two years. In fact, even in another sample of Richard's bemoaning of the superficial theatre world (which Lehmann would have known quite well, being better known as an actress than an author), there is a passage that, swivelled just slightly, could be humorous and even rather thought-provoking:

Characteristics that were lovable or humorous were exaggerated to an absurd degree. Indecencies were committed with such an air of righteousness as to make one believe that one was seeing the shackles of Victorianism cast off by the free spirits and emancipated souls of a new and enlightened generation. Anything approaching unpleasantness was whitewashed liberally so that anybody would be only too eager to identify themselves with these witty, scapegrace moderns; and that, of course, was the secret of his swift success.

People who drank themselves silly, committed adultery, expressed horrible opinions to their elders and betters, suffered from that curious nervous habit called kleptomania, could be gilded and turned into the sort of person anybody would be glad to be. It only depended on the point of view and the treatment.

In addition, the prologue, which follows the eight-year-old navel-gazing-artist-to-be, Richard Saville, and his young cousin Terence on a holiday with their absent-minded young novelist aunt, is an excellent evocation of childhood (something Lehmann would do even more brilliantly in the later novel) and has some really strong writing. It's only when we jump forward in time to see Richard Saville as a successful young playwright, the toast of London but mainly focused on draping himself forlornly across the furniture, bemoaning his dissatisfaction with life, that things start to fall apart. And even then there are occasional high points, when Lehmann allows the characters to behave naturally and compellingly instead of like silent film stars chewing the scenery. But, admittedly, there are not quite enough of these high points.



  1. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. I so enjoyed your review that is not a review I had read it twice. So much to take in - all of it interesting, and not a word wasted. Good on you for passing over that Intro. I make a point of skipping them myself, taking a look only after finishing the novel itself (and sometimes not even then). Your description reminds me of a highly critical Intro that was attached to Gabrielle Roy's The Hidden Mountain in the original New Canadian Library edition. And to think Roy was still very much alive!

    1. Thanks, Brian. I imagine Beatrix was used to always being in the shadow of Rosamond in the literary world, but it does seem that in an intro to one of her own books she might have been allowed to stand on her own! Grrrrr.


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