Saturday, July 23, 2016

FRANCES FAVIELL, A House on the Rhine (1956), Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958)

[A preliminary plea: In the unlikely event that any of you happen to have a copy of The Fledgeling, discussed below, and your copy has an intact dustjacket, we would be delighted to have a scan of the front cover. We were hoping to incorporate Faviell's original artwork for each book into our Furrowed Middlebrow covers, and will be able to do so with A House on the Rhine and Thalia (as well as the two memoirs), but copies of The Fledgeling are just too scarce and we've had no luck. If you are able to provide a scan, please email me and earn our undying gratitude!]

My favorite of Faviell's original cover art

I announced not long ago that the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint (under the benevolent auspices of Dean Street Press) will be reprinting, this October, all five books by the inexplicably neglected Frances Faviell. As most of you know from my previous ravings, this includes her brilliant Blitz memoir, A Chelsea Concerto (1959), another fascinating memoir, The Dancing Bear (1954), about Berlin just after World War II, and three novels, A House on the Rhine (1956), Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958). I've certainly written plenty here about Concerto, but I've never got round to discussing her other books. Dancing Bear deserves a post to itself, so for now I'll just mention the three novels.

When I first picked up a Faviell novel, having read only the two memoirs, I was ambivalent. I knew the author's tremendous powers of observation and ability to capture the irresistible details of situations both dramatic and mundane—from her dog's Hitler-mocking tricks to diving into the ruins of a bombed house—but I wasn't sure what to expect from her as a novelist. In the end, however, although I won't say that any of her fiction matches what she accomplished with Concerto (which was, admittedly, her final book before her tragic early death from cancer, so we can only regretfully wonder what further heights she might have scaled in her work had she survived), these same strengths come through in her novels as well.

I should note right from the beginning that, like Concerto and parts of Dancing Bear, Faviell's novels are a bit darker and grittier than most of the books we'll be doing in the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. She doesn't shy away from the violent or the unsavory, something that is particularly clear from her first novel.

Set several years after the events described in The Dancing Bear, and this time in a town outside of Cologne rather than in Berlin itself, A House on the Rhine (1956) tells the harrowing tale of one large, troubled family nearly a decade after the war's end. Rebuilding is proceeding at a frantic pace, factory work is plentiful and well-paid, and the dark days of near-starvation have ended. But Joseph, who spent most of the war as an Allied prisoner in France, and his enormous brood—his wife having received a medal under the Nazis for having more than 10 children (!!)—are facing new problems.

The family—large and rowdy and sordid—are largely held in contempt by their provincial neighbors, and are known as "the bunker family" because, unable to find housing after their home (along with much of the rest of Cologne) was destroyed, they spent more than four years living in an air raid shelter under Cologne Cathedral. (One of the tidbits stemming no doubt from Faviell's own time in Germany is that bomb shelters were kept open for years after the end of the war, due to the enormous numbers of residents left homeless by bombs. Not a piece of knowledge you'd necessarily come across elsewhere.)

Another original Faviell artwork

As the story begins, Moe, Joseph's wife, an affectionate but slovenly and violent-tempered woman, has been having an affair with their much younger lodger, Rudi; 17-year-old Katie has a 2-year-old son as a result of a fling with a Belgian and is cynical beyond her years; Hank, the oldest son, is a sociopath who endangers several of his siblings by his involvement with a ruthless youth gang; young Carola is recovering from polio in a nearby hospital and may never walk again; and Anna, the oldest daughter, who had a fling of her own and an illegitimate child who died, is now playing it safe with a stodgy older man. And this leaves out the twins, Hans and Heinz, sensitive, intelligent Robert, and younger brothers Karl and Franz Joseph! And it's not to mention Krista, an orphan with no memories of her past, discovered unconscious and badly burned, adopted by the family, and particularly adored by Joseph (possibly not only in a paternal way), who is in love with an American soldier.

It's a dramatic—and sometimes traumatic—story, but one that vividly portrays the love and conflict of a large family bearing its scars from years of war and deprivation. And Joseph's difficulties in coping with the changing political climate and the reality that his teenage children can earn more in the factories than he does, and his attempts to hold his family together against impossible odds, are powerful and heartbreaking.

Also heartbreaking, but on a completely different level, is Faviell's second novel, Thalia (1957), my personal favorite of the three. It’s the story of Rachel, an 18-year-old art student at the Slade who, following a serious illness, is advised to spend a year in a warm climate. Her plans to spend the time with her aunt, who is traveling in Egypt, falls through as the result of Rachel's failure to feel regret for an overly realistic portrait she has painted of the local vicar:

And then I began telling him about the disastrous portrait of our vicar, the Reverend Cookson-Cander. I told him how I hadn't wanted to do it but that my aunt had insisted—of how I disliked the pompous little man—and of how the painting in spite of my efforts grew with each sitting more and more like a disagreeable egg. I could still feel the smart of the furious criticism which had been hurled at me by the admiring ladies of the 'Friends of the Past' circle who had commissioned the portrait from me.

Instead of Egypt, then, she agrees to go to a British community in Brittany as companion to Cynthia, a delicate, temperamental women whose husband is in India (and who seems to be having an affair with a former colleague of said husband), and her two children, troubled 15-year-old Thalia and spoiled young Claude. Thalia, painfully self-conscious and insecure and always having to play second fiddle to her brother, quickly becomes devoted to Rachel. But Rachel's romance with the son of a well-to-do Breton family puts a strain on their relationship and arouses Thalia's tormented jealousy.

Though it's the awkward, emotional Thalia who lends the novel its title, it's really Rachel on whom the novel centers, poignantly telling the tale of her sad first love, her dawning awareness of the vagaries and dishonesties of social life, and the final tragedy she is powerless to prevent.

Faviell's particular strength in Thalia is her characterization. Although not many of the characters are particularly likeable, they are all completely palpable, as if they're standing right next to us. And although Faviell's work is darker, grittier, and a bit more explicit than Mabel Esther Allan's tales of young girls just on the edge of womanhood (my personal favorite being The Return to the West, a Greyladies original from a few years ago), her particular strength, like Allan's, is portraying that volatile, uncertain time and the joy and pain that accompanies first love.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the novel, published in 1957, is set in the mid-1930s. Other readers may not be so oblivious, but it wasn't until a reference to Edward and Mrs Simpson that I finally put two and two together. Near the end of the novel, Rachel reads a news story about "the forthcoming Coronation, with photographs of the little princesses."

My favorite part of the novel (without giving anything vital away) is an excursion Rachel has in Paris among the cafés and artist's studios of Montparnasse. Faviell is excellent at evoking the feel of Paris, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of Rachel's experiences might have been based on Faviell's own. We know that she too studied at the Slade and spent time in France, so the possibilities are intriguing. One rather wishes Faviell had kept a Pepys-ian diary of her experiences.

The conflict between the idealistic Rachel and the cynical older people she encounters in Brittany perhaps led Faviell thematically into her third and final novel, The Fledgeling (1958), which is very much concerned with generational conflict and changing concepts of duty in the social ferment of the late 1950s. As the story begins, Neil Collins is going AWOL from his National Service for the third time. The first two times were because his naturally mild-mannered personality couldn't cope with the roughness and violence of military life, but this escape is largely at the instigation of a bullying colleague who wants his assistance to escape as well.

The only image I have of Faviell's artwork
for The Fledgeling; you can see why we
would need a better image in order to use
it for our cover!

Neil makes his way to London, to the small apartment building where his dying grandmother and his twin sister Nonie live. The atmosphere of the tiny apartment is powerfully conveyed—claustrophobic and hushed, because the nosy/helpful neighbors can hear everything that goes on, and because there is no privacy from the outside world as the window faces onto the street and passersby shout hellos or peer through at Mrs. Collins in her bed. And although Neil's escape forms the surface plot of the novel, it is really the compelling character of his grandmother—raised in children's homes following the abandonment of her parents, widowed, on a pension and public assistance, and at the mercy of social workers who visit regularly—who really dominates. She leads a bleak life, but her spirit nevertheless comes through.

Gruelling as it is, I found Faviell's description of Mrs. Collins's battle with the unnamed disease that's killing her particularly amazing:

In the dreary room in which she was now virtually a prisoner because of her illness, the days ran into night and one sleep into another without any noticeable frontiers. The last time he had come home she had not been confined almost continuously to bed; in between the bouts of pain she had been up and sometimes even out for half an hour. Now like the nights and days, the good bouts ran into the bad ones, and in between the pain there were only the dull bearable intervals when the Monster slept—and she gathered her forces together for the next bout. Before these forces could be fully mustered, the Monster, as she had come to think of the pain which gripped her in his crab-like vice, was upon her again. The very nature of the disease which was killing her made it seem a live evil, a veritable creature there to prey and feast upon her as a vulture will follow the last lagging steps of a wounded man, knowing that soon the final meal will be his.

She fought the pain, not as a disease, but as a personal enemy. When the worst was upon her, her limbs twisted in agony, her face contorted with anguish, she would welcome the Monster grimly. . . . 'Well, old friend, here we are again! All set for the next round ... come on ... come on! ... do your worst ... I can take it. A tough old woman—stronger than any man ... stronger than my drivelling non-stop-talking son ... or my faint-hearted grandson ... come, try me and see ... : Instead of resisting the onslaught she would welcome the struggle, taxing her powers of endurance as long as she could, knowing that when she reached the breaking point and her reserves were weakening, then, and then only would she resort to science, and so escape the final fury of the thwarted Monster in oblivion. The little tablets lay there, regularly replenished. She had only to stretch out her hand to escape the Monster's worst.

Neil's sister Nonie leads a similarly troubled life, caring for her grandmother, working at a dead-end job at a lecherous local grocer's, and in a troubled marriage. Also making appearances are Miss Rhodes—the rather too prim, well-to-do social worker, whom Mrs. Collins accuses of slumming out of curiosity (and nosiness) about other people's lives—and a cheerful little neighbor girl, Linda, who regularly comes crawling through Mrs. Collins's window to chat while waiting for her mother to return home from work.

There is an element of suspense here, as Mike, Neil's sociopathic harasser, appears on the scene and threatens the safety (at different times) of most of the characters. Some of the later scenes, and particularly Mrs. Collins's reactions to plot developments, are entertaining and compelling, but I think the novel's best strength—not surprisingly for Faviell—is its atmosphere, its attention to detail, and its characterization. There are also some interesting descriptions of bomb damage remaining more than a decade after the end of World War II, as in this passage that reminded me of Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows with its children playing in the ruins:

Through the two pots of geraniums, when the light was good, Mrs. Collins could see the piece of waste ground left from the bombing in the war. Tall willow weed and grass grew in profusion amongst the fallen masonry and stones. Most of the rubble had been cleared away—but now, more than ten years after the end of the war, there were still the ruins of some houses, an archway, odd walls, and the deep foundations of what had once been a block of flats. The barbed wire erected round the site did not prevent the children from playing there. They had taken it over as a playground, finding it far more exciting than the streets in which they lived, and watching them at play there had become more than a pastime for the old woman—it had become almost an obsession.

Of course, the year after publication of The Fledgeling, Faviell would hit new heights with A Chelsea Concerto, and would then, tragically and not long after the book appeared, lose her battle with cancer. But her surprisingly dark and powerful novels certainly show us previews of what she would achieve in that book. And they make me regret all the more that Faviell didn't have time to write many, many more books.


  1. Oh this is all so exciting Scott! Sadly the only Fledgling I have a copy of is the one by Elizabeth Cadell... :-( Good luck in your hunt.

    1. That's a good Fledgling to have too, Gil! I haven't read that one yet, but definitely want to.

  2. Jean Faviell BirchOctober 6, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    Francis Faviell was my father's sister (my middle name is Faviell. I have just read Ann Widdicombe novels 'An Act of Treachery' and 'An Act of Peace' set in wartime/post-war France & Germany, prompting me to reread her book 'The Dancing Bear' and to seek out her other books.


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