Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book report: ELIZABETH ELIOT (2 of 2)

Eliot's third novel, Mrs. Martell (1953), follows an utterly self-absorbed, superficial woman from her teens to her second marriage. But if that sounds unpleasant, in Eliot's hands it's not at all. Obsessed with money and class and all the appearances of a sophisticated life, but coming herself from genteel poverty, Cathie Martell rarely loses her focus on getting what she wants out of life, regardless of the feelings or happiness of those (her Aunt Violet, for example, who finances her education, or her first husband, or the man she's set her sights on to be her second—not to mention that man's current wife) who get in her way.

A critic's blurb about Mrs. Martell, from the back cover of Eliot's subsequent novel Starter's Orders (1955), says, "Only an artist in character study could make Cathie Martell tolerable; Miss Eliot goes further and makes her real." And it is indeed remarkable that the novel is so completely enjoyable despite having such an unlikeable main character. But I think it's Eliot's sharp eye for detail and her sense of humor that allow her to pull it off.

Another terrible photo, but the best I could
find for this book

The humor is a bit more muted here than in her first two novels (another critic notes that this is so "because wickedness is a sad business"), but it's still very much present. Sometimes it's that wonderful surprise ending to an otherwise innocuous observation, as here when Cathie is bored on a train and wishes for a handsome man to help her pass the time:

Even so, an encounter with a tall and handsome stranger would have been a pleasant interlude, but alas, he did not appear. Once, in the corridor, and right at the beginning of the journey, she thought she had found him; but later when he came into the dining-car he was surrounded by a gaggle of five or six bright adolescents all of whom addressed him as 'Daddy'; and they were accompanied by a depressed middle-aged woman who inevitably was Mother; impossible to imagine her as having ever been anything else.

One imagines the poor Mother must have sometimes had trouble imagining herself as anything else too! And here, in a dispute with Aunt Violet, a younger Cathie lets her propensity for drama get the best of her:

'As far as I am concerned, Aunt Violet, I don't want another penny of your money. I can go out and earn my bread,' and she saw a distinct picture of herself working her fingers to the bone and being seduced by goodness knows whom.

Blurbs from the back cover of Starter's Orders

And once or twice, even in this more serious novel, Eliot drops in an instance of pure silliness, as in this discussion at a ski lodge after one of Cathie's companions breaks a collar bone:

'Such a shame to break something at the beginning of the fortnight.' The elderly lady who had waylaid Laura in the hall of the hotel clicked anxiously over her knitting-needles.

'Yes,' Laura agreed, 'oh, yes.'

'When I was out here with my boys last year, we had two broken legs; but only on the very last day.'

'Even so, it must have been dreadful.'

'Of course they didn't both belong to us.'

Like most of Eliot's other novels, I think Mrs. Martell is a novel that will only improve on re-reading.

I did say "most," because, although it saddens me to admit that a new favorite author has her flaws, I'm not quite so sure that the same is true of Eliot's fourth novel, Starter's Orders (1955).

Front flap from
Starter's Orders

Now, if you're a big fan of horseracing, and are looking to read about it in fairly intimate detail—exploring the thoughts and feelings not only of the principle characters (a stable owner and the woman who may become his wife), but also of grooms and trainers and owners and bookies and gamblers, as well as several relatives and servants of the main characters—then you'll be happily in your element here. But those—like me—who can hardly tell the difference between a horserace and a game of croquet are likely to find less excitement here.

Starter's Orders seems to be in the nature of an experiment for Eliot—an attempt at a Dickensian variety of character with the budget-busting cast of thousands that a Hollywood extravaganza has on offer. And since Eliot is a polished and very talented author, I admit that even some of the scenes showing the care and handling of horses, or detailing the anxious preparations for a race, did pull me in and hold my interest, added to the fact that, when the focus is on the main characters and their slowly progressing relationship, Eliot produces more or less her usual sparkling, entertaining prose. Plus, even a not-entirely-successful novel can be interesting when examining a very good author's body of work, so perhaps I will revisit the novel someday and see what I come up with.

By contrast, however, Eliot's fifth and final novel, Cecil (1962), which appeared after an uncharacteristic seven year gap in publication, tops off her too-short literary career in style. Here, Eliot tries to get at something very subtle and elusiveportraying a dysfunctional (to say the least) mother/son relationship from the perspective of an in-law who only sees them now and again over the course of several years. Anne, the narrator, is the sister-in-law of the title character, and although she develops strong feelings about Henry and his mother, Lady Guthrie, one is also aware that her knowledge and perception is limited.

In lieu of a cover image of
Cecil, the back flap of Starter's
, with enthusiastic praise
for Alice

Eliot's intent is clearly not to make the relationship obvious, but to show it only as it can be wrestled with and perceived in glimmers and fragments and suspicions. It's an ambitious project, and one that fans of Henry James, for example, may happily sink their teeth into, but it's also always a fascinating and entertaining project. Just as I recently wrote about Rachel Ferguson's Evenfield, Eliot too manages to create genuinely serious literature without making the reader's experience feel like serious work. The shades of meaning and possible interpretations are there if you want to sample them, but you'll have fun even if you don't.

What's more, Cecil is an excellent portrayal of a theme I haven't commented on here for a while—that of the maleficent malingerer, here encapsulated in Lady Guthrie, who (if Anne's observations are to be believed) ruins the life of her son as thoroughly as if she set out to do so meticulously and calculatedly (but wait, perhaps she did?). Yet even as loathsome as she seems, I found Lady Guthrie completely believable, not just a comic book villain, and there are no easy answers for her or any of Eliot's other characters. And perhaps even Lady Guthrie's loathsomeness, as observed by Anne, is placed in some doubt, for one may wonder how much of it is real and how much is built up in Anne's own mind:

Lady Guthrie and Cecil arrived, as threatened, on the sixth of August. I had not, as I have said, seen Cecil for nearly three years or Lady Guthrie for seven. In the interval my feelings towards her, mainly, naturally, owing to the circumstances which had surrounded the breaking off of the engagement, had undergone a considerable change. As I waited for the carriage I realized that whereas before I had been accustomed to think of her as a selfish and often foolish woman I now regarded her as a veritable ogress. In my imagination, untouched by any sight of the reality, the soft features had become witchlike; the embonpoint had turned to layers of repulsive flesh. My first sight of Lady Guthrie, not very surprisingly, proved me to have been completely wrong. The appearance of the woman who was ushered into the drawing-room differed very little from that of the one who had last left it in 1887.

I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure, even now, what to think of Cecil's relationship with his mother, and I can't decide if this is because Eliot handled her ending with just a bit too much subtlety, or if this impression—that one almost perceives the truth, that if one just strains a bit more, re-reads earlier passages, seeks the clues a bit more aggressively, then one will see it all—is precisely the point Eliot wanted to make—that we can never see all of the clues, never perceive all the truth about other people and their motivations. And this is not to mention the ways in which the narrator's speculations sometimes reflect upon her own relationships with her husband and children—and perhaps the ways in which her ability to understand Cecil and his mother are limited by her own experiences as a mother.

Certainly, some dark secret about Cecil is implied here and there, but it is kept as vague as the misbehavior of schoolboy Miles in James's The Turn of the Screw, of which Cecil's implied but vague crimes reminded me.

But even feeling not completely sure about the ending, this is one of my favorite Eliot novels (though it's true I've felt that about all of her novels as I've finished them, except for the aforementioned Starter's Orders). More serious than the others, and somewhat inexplicably set in the late Victorian period—though its tone feels just the same as the others which are set in the 1950s—it nevertheless sparkles with Eliot's sharp observations and charming prose. It's less laugh-out-loud funny than her earliest works, though it does still have its moments, and I can't resist sharing one longish dialogue between Anne and Lady Guthrie, from very early on, as they discuss Lady Guthrie's current interest in spiritualism:

'If it hadn't been for the poltergeists,' idly Lady Guthrie picked up the silver trumpet used for blowing out the little spirit lamp under the kettle, 'I am convinced that my private hour with him would not have ended as it did.'

Exactly how the hour had ended she had not told us but apparently she and Mr Jackson had failed to communicate with the spirit of her sister Marion.'

I nodded sympathetically, thinking what a pity it was that of all Lady Guthrie's sisters, Marion, the only one who had died, should also be the only one in whose advice, if only it could be obtained, she seemed to place any confidence.

'Perhaps,' I said, 'if you were to try again on your way back through London?'

'I shall certainly attempt it but sometimes with so many wishing to speak to us it can be very difficult. On Sunday at the public meeting there were a great many messages; most of them I'm bound to say rather silly.'

Abruptly Lady Guthrie, without attempting to do anything supernatural with it, which is what I'd been vaguely afraid of, replaced the trumpet on the tea-table. 'Half of them might just as well have been written on the back of picture postcards of Brighton, "All well here, everything very beautiful, don't worry."'

What a shame that Eliot didn't continue to write fiction after 1962. As wonderful as Alice and Henry are, she evolved tremendously as an author by 1962, and I would have loved to see where she might have got to if she had gone on. From the beginning, she was a very smart, sophisticated, and clever author, and by 1962 she had become a very subtle one as well. She certainly deserves to be more widely read…


  1. For some perverse reason, your posts about Eliot have stirred up in me a desire to read Starter's Orders. Perhaps because I have enjoyed the Dick Frances mysteries?


    1. If you're interested in horse racing, you might like it, Jerri. It's just quite different from Eliot's other work. Perhaps if I had read it first, or in isolation, I would have enjoyed it more.

  2. MRS MARTELL is brilliant.I enjoyed every word about this self absorbed man eater.
    CECIL was not half as entertaining for me.


NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!