Saturday, August 6, 2016

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936)

It should have been a profoundly humorous sight. I can only say that it was beastly, for I knew in my heart that this furious pursuit wasn't the first; that once there were those who ran before her as I was running, and one who could not run so fast ... what she had done then I don't ever wish to know, and try not to think of.

I love it when a favorite author challenges my assumptions and expectations of their work, and this eerie quotation from Rachel Ferguson's sixth novel, A Harp in Lowndes Square (published the year before Alas, Poor Lady, which is available from Persephone) may give at least an inkling of just how surprising this book was. I'm calling it Ferguson's version of a ghost story, though like most of her novels its genre takes a back seat to her completely unique authorial voice and the peculiar depths of its plot. What's more, it is one of her most serious and passionate works, despite being leavened now and then with her usual hilarity.

The story begins with a short, eerie prologue, the significance of which one only fully realizes at the end of the book (I won't spoil it, of course, but I highly recommend immediately circling back to it when you finish the novel). A child, Anne, in her dingy bedroom at the top of a large house, hears noises downstairs late at night and wonders who it could be:

It leaves us speculating upon what Anne, the woman, would have made of that evening in Lowndes Square, when—still the younger Miss Vallant—she peered over those banisters and heard a young, unknown man and woman many flights below, and warmed to the voices of her son and daughter who were to be.

That's right. There's something about this unusual family that allows its members, in varying ways, to perceive the sights, sounds, and emotions of other times, and here Anne is warming to the voices of her future children (though what exactly they're doing in the old family home in the middle of the night you'll have to find out for yourself).

This family proclivity is particularly pronounced in said son and daughter, twins Vere and James, who have "the sight," which enables them to witness and even re-experience scenes from other times (including, on one memorable and startling occasion at Hampton Court, seeing Henry VIII and young Edward VI discussing tennis and eating apples). And they're not only sensitive to events from other times, but to each other's experiences: Vere experiences befuddlement and dulled senses when James gets drunk for the first time, and James experiences discomfort when Vere is on dates with young men. Vere, the narrator of the novel, also notes the suffering of houses as a result of neglect, the hidden emotions of furniture, and the echoes of past dances in ballrooms!

But it is ultimately their own family history which becomes the twins' obsession, as well as their most vivid and painful experience with the ghosts of the past. It begins with a curiosity about their mother's tortured relationship with her own mother, the formidable and apparently heartless Lady Vallant, who gleefully torments her servants as well as her family. And when the twins question their little-known aunts (the family is not close-knit, to say the least), they hear for the first time about Myra, "the aunt who died," "that shadow of whose very existence our own mother had never told us." Their curiosity is aroused, and they are on their way, determined to uncover the history behind their mother's silence.

Giving you a sort of scoop (in lieu of any pics of Harp's original
dustjacket), here's the artwork, by Danish painter Peter Ilsted,
that we plan to feature on the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of the novel.
I think it's wonderfully evocative, with just a touch of eerieness?

If that sounds rather straightforward, however, it isn't quite. This is, after all, a Rachel Ferguson novel, and so there are numerous entertaining digressions, distractions, and ramblings. World War I begins, though it figures little in the story apart from explaining James's absence for long periods and allowing a tighter focus on Vere's experiences. We get a preview of Ferguson's subsequent novel, Alas, Poor Lady, in the sad figure of Miss Chilcot, the family's old governess, a downtrodden gentlewoman whom Vere tracks down dying of starvation and neglect in a hospital. And then there's Vere's strange, more-or-less platonic relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), which is certainly a unique Ferguson touch.

But the center of the novel is the dreadful Lady Vallant and the sad, mysterious Myra. Of all the terrible mothers portrayed in the fiction of this time, Lady Vallant must stand as one of the towering figures of maternal monsterdom, and unlike some novels (including Monica Tindall's marvelous The Late Mrs Prioleau, which I wrote about here not long ago), there is little in Harp to explain or justify her cruelty, so that the reader is left wondering at her and trying to fathom her mindset.

Perhaps it's because of the pain and sadness Vere and James uncover that Harp feels, despite occasional moments of hilarity, surprisingly serious for a Rachel Ferguson novel. She was daft and silly in earlier works like The Bront√ęs Went to Woolworth's, and she would be daft and silly again with A Footman for the Peacock. But perhaps Harp allowed Ferguson to tap into more personal, deeper concerns. That said, though, when her sense of humor presents itself, it's just as charming as ever, as when Vere and James are told that Lady Vallant keeps her servants on "board wages" and don't quite understand:

Board wages certainly sounded bleak, and for some time we all believed it meant sleeping on a plank.

Here as elsewhere, Ferguson is interested in class distinctions, though she also shows considerable interest in and sensitivity with the servants, as when Vere visits the "downstairs" areas of Lady Vallant's house:

He led me down to the rooms I had never seen. I asked to see the kitchen and was shown it. The warren of sitting-rooms and pantrys was small and freakishly ventilated; some of them, including the larders, had no windows at all and gas light burnt there all the year round, they told me. Furniture obviously taken from the upper floors made the staff comfortable enough and I saw that the dining table of the upper servants, still covered with breakfast things, sported an imposing array of our family silver. The cook was drinking a jorum of tea out of a cup that looked uncommonly like Crown Derby. And I said nothing: neither did Hutchins, for which I respected him. If you appropriate, do it in the grand manner. And that underworld of men and women, the majority of whom had so far only materialized to me as a row of decorous behinds at dining-room prayers, emerged as human beings, and I think we pleased each other reasonably well. Their laws of precedence, I knew, were tricksy, but I managed to make only two mistakes: confused the upper with the under housemaid and 'spoke' to the kitchenmaid who is, socially, dumb.

But as someone who occasionally wrestles with social anxieties of my own, my favorite passage, and the one that made me laugh the most, is Ferguson's suggestion for shocking oneself out of one's worries:

I once knew a man who cured himself of melancholia by putting £200 out of a Bank balance of £350 on the Derby. His action so shocked him that it drove away his bogeys, and a girl we all know, on being presented at Court, was so ill with nerves that she nearly fainted; she was on the verge oflosing consciousness and just managed to lean forward to some dowager sitting by her daughter and to stammer, quite untruly, 'I think your dress is fussy and unbecoming'. In the whispered melee that followed the faintness was forgotten for the whole evening.

Ferguson is always interesting in her turns of phrase, sometimes incorporating the contemporary parlance of the day that might otherwise be lost. Two things struck me along these lines in this novel. First, there is a reference to the "maroons" sounding before an air raid; has anyone else ever heard this term for sirens? A Google search brings up one or two such usages, but it seems to not have been a common one?

And then there's this offhand comment from Vere: "The story, as Americans say 'listened badly', and I knew it." Do Americans say such things?! I have to admit that, though I've never heard this expression, I do rather like it and may have to start using it in conversation. So perhaps there is something about it that appeals to Americans…

At any rate, some of you will recall that I announced not long ago that the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint will be reprinting three of Ferguson's best (in my humble opinion) novels this October, and Harp is one of those three. I was already excited enough about that, but in putting together that edition, we discovered that no less a figure than Gillian Tindall, acclaimed novelist and historian (and, relevent to readers of this blog, daughter of Ursula Orange), published a short piece about Ferguson in the Literary Review at the time of Persephone's release of Alas, Poor Lady. In that piece, Tindall not only speaks enthusiastically about Ferguson in general, but particularly singles out A Harp in Lowndes Square as one of her most intriguing works. She ends by noting, "I wish someone would reissue this book." (!!)

Think of this post, then, as a preview of coming attractions. A Harp in Lowndes Square is a unique and rather tragic entry in Ferguson's wildly varied body of work, and I'm delighted that others will now have a chance to read it.


  1. When a Lifeboat needed to be called out they would send up a flare to notify the crew that they were needed ( this is before telephones) and that was always called a maroon. This went into the vocabulary so that " a maroon going off" was the signal for something big happening.

  2. Her books are too "offbeat"for me.This sounds like a more readable version of Ivy Compton Burnett crossed with the plot of a Scooby Doo cartoon.Sorry to sound so outrageous.

    1. Hmmmm, not a very apt comparison, I don't think. On the other hand, I love Ivy Compton-Burnett (and, for that matter, Scooby Doo!), so perhaps you're onto something!

  3. You have gotten me very interested in this book. I love the idea of generations seeing each other at different times of life...I've always wanted to see/know my grandmother as a young girl. This author also giving feelings to furniture also sounds neat. I grew up in an old house. When each of us grew up and moved away, it left all these empty, lifeless bedrooms. I thought that was always kind of sad for the room. Finally, I love a story with a good bad person. Lady Vallant sounds awful. Is she on par with Mrs. Cove in Margaret Kennedy's "The Feast"?

    1. It's a fun concept, I think, Lucy, and may have come--according to our excellent intro writer--from Ferguson's reading of Dunne's Experiment with Time, which seems to have influenced many authors of the time.

      Suffice it to say I think it would be fun to see Lady Vallant and Mrs Cove pitted against one another!

  4. This American has never heard the phrase "listened badly" but I like it too!

    1. And there could be useful variations--a movie that watches badly, a book that reads badly, a dinner that eats badly?

  5. '"maroons" sounding before an air raid; has anyone else ever heard this term for sirens? '
    A maroon wasn't a siren, but a rocket used as a signal. It exploded in the air making a noise like a chestnut in the fire.

  6. I am very excited that you're publishing Rachel Ferguson's books! Alas, Poor Lady is my favorite Persephone, but I have never come across any of Ferguson's other novels.

    1. Thanks, Kat! I'm happy to "meet" a fellow Ferguson fan!


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