Tuesday, March 15, 2016

RACHEL FERGUSON, Evenfield (1942)

The same old photo of Rachel Ferguson; surely
others must exist? My next quest...

I've posted a couple of times before about Rachel Ferguson novels, as some of you might recall. I first came to her, before I was a blogger, the same way I came to a good many other favorite authors—via a Virago Modern Classic little green paperback. In this case, a copy of Ferguson's delightful second novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworth's (1931), a wacky novel of a family of sisters who seem to have some difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction (or is it merely that their fictions have an alarming tendency to become reality?). Not long after that discovery (many years after Virago had discovered it), Persephone reprinted one of Ferguson's later novels, Alas, Poor Lady (1937), which is less wacky but just as enjoyable for other reasons, not least because of Ferguson's passionate advocacy on behalf of disadvantaged gentlewomen.

From there, the fact that none of her other novels had ever been reprinted predictably made me determined to read more, and a reference to the wartime novel A Footman for the Peacock (1940) led me to my favorite of all of Ferguson's fiction, which I still love so much that it's practically unnatural. And a while after that I wrote about one of her final novels, A Stroll Before Sunset (1946), which I also quite like.

Now, all of that, in my typical snail-like fashion, took at least three years to unfold. But lately, I seem to be getting a bit more obsessed with reading more or less everything that certain authors have ever written. This is partly the result of a New Year's resolution that I wanted to finally get around to reading some of the high priority books that had been languishing on my TBR list for far too long, prioritizing especially those authors I already knew were something special.

This has led me, in the past few weeks, to read a whole slew of other Rachel Ferguson titles. (Can four books be a slew? Well, considering how rare and hard to find most of these are, I think they can.) And Evenfield (1942), Ferguson's follow-up to Footman, is the belle of the ball as far as this recent reading goes.

Jacket blurb pasted in the front
of my library copy of Evenfield

To say that Evenfield is an odd novel is completely redundant, because, hello? It's by Rachel Ferguson, so the oddness should go without saying. But it's also highly readable and enjoyable, as well as being a thoroughly fascinating psychoanalytic comedy (though you don't have to realize this or care about psychoanalysis in order to enjoy it).

Barbara Morant spends a crucial part of her early childhood in the unremarkable suburban house which gives its name to the novel. For her older siblings, the house is merely a place to live; for her mother, it's a symbol of the provincial drudgery of suburban living. But for Barbara, the house and the routines of those years are invested with a sacred halo of happiness, and she yearns for them long after the family returns to London.

Her nostalgic obsession leads her to attempt to recall every detail of the way things were—some of which she was, at the time, too young to register, and some of which she either missed or misunderstood. Her nostalgia, her pursuit of her ideal childhood, lead her in adulthood—following her unexpected success writing witty song lyrics for the stage—to lease the house, undo the changes that have been made in the meantime, and attempt to recreate, down to the last detail, her childhood home.

Ferguson uses an unusual structure to convey this combination of actual experience, remembered experience, and what might be called supplemented experience (what she can't recall herself but learns about later). Barbara begins her first-person narrative by admitting herself to be a victim of nostalgia, and then the novel descends into the purest nostalgic recollection for the rest of its first half, before we finally get—halfway or more through the novel—to the point where a grown Barbara begins yearning for her old home.

Admittedly, this structure could frustrate some readers, and if you're looking for action-packed plotting, look elsewhere. But on the other hand that first half is so lushly packed with digressive domestic detail, namedropping of popular celebrities of the time, household products, advertisements, songs, décor, pastimes, and more that anyone with an interest in domestic life in the late Victorian years will likely be too intrigued (and, if you're like me, too busy Googling what the heck many of the terms or names refer to) to quibble very much. And Ferguson uses all of these things effectively as part of her master theme, as here in a recollection of the family gardener and his cleaning supplies:

On arrival in the morning, Stiles's first house of call and job was to the glory-hole, a window'd dug-out also facing the front gates, where he cleaned knives on a cocoa-coloured board with Goddard's plate-powder and (I believe) polished boots and shoes. The place stank comfortably of knife-powder, and it is a fact that the face of Mr. Goddard on the tin is far more vivid to me to-day than is that of anyone of my family, including mother.

In fact, Barbara's mother, and Barbara's attempts to understand her better by focusing on her every behavior and motivation, seems to be one of the root causes of her obsession. Even before she reclaims Evenfield for herself, she imagines approaching the house and its current residents to try to recapture some memories:

In those years I never dreamed of ringing the bell, declaring myself, adducing the Fields as reference or asking for an imaginary person in order to get a good look at the hall. It was enough that Evenfield was there and looking exactly the same—even the knocker had been allowed to remain. Just to knock and run away would have given me much material, for the timbre of that horseshoe of brass would awake its own set of associations, and I should see more clearly that cauliflower fur cape of mother's (had it one button or two?), re-smell the veil of dotted net which covered incredibly her face, re-feel the coldness of her cheek chilled by the fog of London, and remember more of the fairings without which she seldom returned.

I already suspected, but am now completely convinced, that Ferguson is an experimental writer, every bit as much as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce—though she is also, happily, more readable and laugh-out-loud funny. Evenfield is—at least based on the other works by her that I've read so far—her version of a Proustian novel. If you recall—or have heard about it, if Proust himself is not your chosen bedtime reading—Proust made much (a few hundred pages, if I recall correctly) of the memories of childhood which flooded back with a single taste of a madeleine. Ferguson's equivalent is much more amusing:

If it comes to that, I was to discover, on first becoming a Londoner, that a box-room at Evenfield smelt of the Albert Hall, with the result that, when I returned, grown-up, to the box-room I was irresistibly impelled to hum airs from The Messiah all the time I remained in it, while at the Albert Hall I missed whole tracts of the Oratorio through a sharp sensation of old trunks, and mentally tallying up their contents.

There is a serious exploration here of childhood and the way it is remembered and misremembered by adults, of the ways in which its memories can be destroyed by pursuing them too hard, and of how we sometimes cause the very ravages of time that we seek to defeat. Here (in a scene from late in the novel that hilariously links up with the early passage just quoted) is Barbara bemoaning the fact that her memories of Evenfield in childhood can never again be uncontaminated with the events (including the hit song, Everybody Kept on Laughing, which financed her return, and her lukewarm beau, Clifford) of her adult life:

If it comes to that, I wasn't able entirely to lose even myself in the past, as fragmentary thoughts of our cook, Clifford, my Old Contemptibles, the face of The Guv'nor and the orchestra in full blast with Everybody Kept on Laughing briefly possessed my brain in turn and were chased away. I didn't want them there, and went upstairs to the box-room floor (it was there that I realized that what had been Cuss's room smelt of the Albert Hall, and that meant a tiresome two minutes with The Messiah).

Some novels make me obsess about them, wanting to read them over and over, to try to get a handle on their layers of meaning. This can be maddening (how I recall, rather hauntedly, a year or so in grad school pouring over Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and its virtually limitless layers of meaning—I haven't been brave enough to approach James again since, for fear that I'll be sucked back into the vortex). But I have a feeling I could become much more pleasantly obsessed with Evenfield.

Author's note about the avoidance of war in the novel

But lest I've given too much of an impression that this is "serious literature" in the sense of books that one must labor intensely and profoundly to fully "appreciate," here's one more quote that doesn't mean anything profound but is merely hilarious, especially for those of us who think wedding madness might justifiably be a treatable mental illness:

And in any case the house was beginning to be upside down with preparations for Mell's wedding, a convivial, exhausting and essentially ridiculous bustle, for the displaying of wedding presents is, if you come to think of it, an amazing piece of vulgarity, for who cares or should care if you've been given a fish-slice or not! And if you admit the principle of this ostentatious materialism, why not exhibit lengths of all the wall-papers you propose to use, or a section of the lead piping that has been selected for the drains!

Now, perhaps because of its wartime themes and its complex satire of class and general all-around loathsomeness, A Footman for the Peacock probably remains my favorite Rachel Ferguson novel (there's an introductory note at the beginning of Evenfield that declares that it's for readers who are tired of thinking of the war, and that it takes place in a completely war-free alternate universe). But I have to admit that Evenfield now comes in only a millimeter or so behind.

And what were the other three Rachel Ferguson books I read in my recent Ferguson binge, you ask? Since I've apparently just written a review, despite my best intentions not to, you'll have to wait a bit to hear about those…


  1. Very interesting. Her point about ignoring the war reminded me of something I discovered while researching certain books written during WWII, by authors who usually set their books in the current day. Agatha Christie only wrote one book during the war that acknowledged the war, the Tommy and Tuppance novel N or M? Her other books written during the war seem to be set either prior to the war, or in an alternative England without WWII. On the other hand, her POST WWII books do deal with WWII and it's aftermath, to such an extent that my memory thought that she dealt with the war at the time. I assume that she or editor or publisher or agent thought that during the war her readers would want to forget, but that after it, the war had made such a big impact on England that she couldn't ignore it?

    Anyway, different authors interact with the war in different ways.


    1. It is interesting, Jerri. Ferguson had just finished dealing with the war in A Footman for the Peacock, so maybe she felt she had exhausted the topic and wanted to do something else. I've always thought that Christie's avoidance of the war was rather odd, though, considering that many other mystery writers used the war and things like the blackout and rationing so effectively. I wish she would have tackled it at least once--it would have been fascinating to see what she might have done with it.

  2. This author sounds delightful! I'm happy to see The Brontes Go to Woolworths is available at my library.

    1. That's the most readily available of her novels, and definitely one of the best. Hope you like it!

    2. Correction: That and Alas Poor Lady are her most readily available novels. The latter's in print from Persephone Books.


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