Sunday, September 18, 2016

ROMILLY CAVAN, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940)

One of the novels that many bloggers—including myself—have been most excited about rediscovering in the past few years is the delightful Guard Your Daughters (1953) by Diana Tutton. I actually read it before I ever started blogging, so never quite got around to reviewing it here, but I've mentioned it glowingly, and you can always refer back to the blogger who seems to have blazed the trail in adoration of the novel—Simon at Stuck in a Book, whose 2012 review of it is here. (A quick Google search will reveal numerous other bloggers who have written about it since.)

Most blog posts about this marvelous, funny, yet surprisingly dark and profound novel go on to note, as I have also done myself, how inexplicable it is that the book remains out of print. On this occasion, however, having now had vast experience as a publisher (ha!), I shall no longer note this, as I am, sadly, no longer at all surprised that the book remains out of print. Ahem. What can I say? We tried. Here's hoping for the future, however.

But I hope that it will pique the interest of Guard Your Daughters fans that that book was constantly brought to mind when I was reading this marvelous novel by Romilly Cavan, and I think Beneath the Visiting Moon absolutely deserves to sit on an ideal bookcase right beside the later novel. Now, I know that's a pretty big claim, but Visiting Moon has many of the same attributes—an eccentric, hilarious family dynamic, charming young girls just coming of age and seeking romance, fabulously eccentric supporting characters, and a dark, tragic backdrop that subtly permeates even the most cheerful scenes.

In this case, the tragic backdrop is, in part, the relentless approach of World War II. Mentioned only in passing here and there throughout much of the novel, the story ends just on the eve of war, at Sarah Fontayne's 18th birthday party, with a sense that the festivities are the last that will be experienced for a long while. The sense of hauntedness throughout undoubtedly stems, then, from the instability of world affairs, but it also stems from other, more personal, elements—disappointment and heartbreak, social inability and financial insecurity, and, in some way, people always being the wrong age for what they want.

The cast of characters could, in less capable hands, be dizzying in its array. There's the aforementioned Sarah, her siblings Philly (short for Philadelphia, no less), Christopher, and quirky little Tom, her rather bewildered widowed mother Elisabeth, a neighbor, Julian, and his children Peter and Bronwen (a child prodigy who has already published her first book), local representatives of society and sophistication in the form of Mrs. Oxford, Lady Pansy, and Mrs. Welwyn, and various other friends and neighbors. A film version would have quite an epic cast—and no doubt an epic budget as well—but it all flows so smoothly and develops so naturally that I was never confused about who was who.

At first glance, Beneath the Visiting Moon seems like any other cozy village tale of family life. The Fontaynes have been left in slight financial straits by the death of their father (they can still afford a servant or two, though, of course). The four siblings are shaken when Elisabeth, a loving but rather dizzy woman, meets new neighbor Julian and the two families look like becoming a rather more intellectual version of The Brady Bunch. Sarah becomes hopelessly infatuated with a thirty-something diplomat who travels all over Europe trying to avert catastrophe. Philly endures being painted by a dull local artist. Bronwen pompously but entertainingly deals with the pressures of a literary life (and tries a bit too hard to lose weight). And, in the end, a valiant attempt is made to revive the decaying, long-neglected ballroom of the family home for Sarah's birthday party—perhaps a symbol of a disintegrating way of life having its last hurrah.

Indeed, much of the delightfully daft dialogue, particularly between the two sisters, Sarah and Philly, seems merely cozy (as well as distinctly Tutton-esque), as in this passage only a few pages into the book:

"I wish you wouldn't wear those stockings to go into the village," Sarah said, her entrancing thoughts diverted. "You look like a schoolgirl."

"I ought to be a schoolgirl," Philly said equably.

"It isn't fair to me," Sarah said sternly. "Everyone classes us together; and what do you think I can make of my life if I'm classed as a schoolgirl? And don't ask me"—she paused to stamp her foot—"what I am making of it, because I know the answer is nothing at all." She glared angrily at her younger sister's offending stockings.

Philly would not have dreamed of asking Sarah such a leading and impertinent question. She squeezed Sarah's thin little hand with her own broader stronger one.

"I'd go back and change now," she whispered, "but my only decent pale ones are full of holes."

"What? Oh, stockings ... " Sarah laughed, the tension gone. "You've broken all the bones in my hand."

But just a couple of pages later, one gets this distinctly unusual description of their village:

The place often had a satisfactory depthless look, with light and shadow lying in neat lozenges of effectively thought-out patterns. Times when windowboxes, slung casually from the second-story windows of houses that were shops on their ground floors and residences above, were not the mere artistic whims of nature-loving dwellers, but the very expression of a street made from a child's single-minded design and carried out with the expert aid of scissors and paint-box and glue. Walking, you felt the steep pull of exacting two-dimensional demands. You were flat with the road and the buildings, at one with a paper-flat aspect of life, as if you were no more than sketched in lightly, as brief human interest, on the final architectural design. This point of view, the girls had found, left you with a most pleasing sense of release from the ordinary irksome pressure of daily life.

Coming only on page 8, this description made me wonder if Cavan wasn’t intentionally highlighting the superficiality of the conventions (idyllic village, perky, eccentric characters, light romance) that she is both using and undercutting in the rest of the novel. In this, too, Cavan's novel is reminiscent of Guard Your Daughters (though as Daughters appeared thirteen years after Visiting Moon, perhaps we should say Tutton's book is reminiscent of Cavan's!), and I think Cavan succeeds in capturing the essence of the "uncozy" novel just as well as (perhaps even better than?!) Tutton did.

Looking back through some of the passages I marked in the novel, I'm surprised even now at how many of the most hilarious parts have just a bit of an added edge, a ghostly darkness lurking beneath the cheerful surface. What, for example, of this passage about the elitist Mrs. Oxford's poor undervalued niece:

"Pansy always was difficult. Emily, sit up." She noticed now, as she had noticed previously, that her granddaughter invariably and incomprehensively blushed at the mention of Lady Pansy's name.

Emily sat up, the blush deepening. How tell anyone of the sense of shame brought by that name? How tell anyone that for years you had mistaken a picture of Lady Pansy, in the awesome fashions of her youth, for an authentic portrait of God, and had said your prayers to it accordingly, night after unnumbered night? That great plumed hat and shawl-like robing, and the prominence that Grandmother had given the picture: was it really any wonder that you had gone on praying to Lady Pansy for so long? But now—when the truth had at last come out—it was not only that Lady Pansy no longer seemed to have any real identity. Neither, alas, had God.

Are we merely to laugh at the daft idealizings and misunderstandings of youth, or are we to note that their result in poor Emily has apparently been an agnostic jadedness?

And then, when Sarah decides to move to London and earn her own living, she inspires this rather irrelevent rant from the formidable Lady Pansy herself:

"I shall be going away to a job soon, but not quite yet."

"You won't like it," Lady Pansy said flatly. "I once had a hat shop and you simply couldn't possibly imagine anything more horrid." Her voice rose indignantly. "All the loathsome little receipts and things people expected! And the obscene foundations lying in wait for you all naked in the workroom! And all the terrible trivia of velvet bows and eye-veils and quills! No—for real soul-destroying disillusion, give me a hat shop."

"I'm not going into a hat shop," Sarah said.

"I should hope not." Angrily she sniffed at the exotic mules. "Horrible little raw foundations reminding you every day how hollow life is when you get down to its bare bones."

Hilarious misunderstandings, perhaps, but one wonders if the hollowness of life "when you get down to its bare bones" isn't one of the themes of the novel as well.

I love these passages that may be read as both surface silliness and more disturbing undercurrents, and dark comedy is one of my favorite things in the world. I'm a firm believer that some things are just too dark and disturbing not to joke about. But of course not every reader will necessarily feel the same. Some readers, too, might be disappointed by the way the novel consistently undercuts any traditional kind of happy ending. It's true that it does this, sort of, but I found the slightly melancholy and anticlimactic closing completely appropriate for a story set at such an uneasy time. And on a more personal level for its main character, I think the ending (I won't spoil it except to note the general tone) is thematically appropriate in capturing the almost simultaneous giddiness and angst of being a teenager and facing tremendous change in oneself even while the world is threatening to collapse around you.

Ultimately, Beneath the Visiting Moon is one of my favorite discoveries in a long, long time, and I happen to know that at least one reader has already sampled it too—as a result of an earlier mention I made of it, where I quoted a review and noted how intriguing it sounded. So feel free to chime in with anything I've forgotten or gotten wrong, Faith!

By the way, Visiting Moon is a surprisingly weighty novel in more ways than one—a big tome weighing in at nearly 400 pages. But how I would have loved if it could have gone on for at least another 400!

Sadly, Cavan (real name Isabel Wilson) published only six novels in all, of which this is the last. The others are Heron (1934, aka The Daughters of Richard Heron), To-morrow Is Also a Day (1935), The Splendour Falls (1936), Characters in Order of Appearance (1938), and Mary Cloud (1939). Of course, I was immediately hot on the trail of more of her books, and have just finished reading one of them, which I'll report on as soon as possible (considering the long trip looming in my future). Sadly, too, although interesting, the other novel didn't at all live up to Visiting Moon. Do any of the other four? Hmmm...


  1. I did not enjoy CHARACTERS IN ORDER when i read it a few months ago.The 1920s lovers were sickly sweet and the others were oddballs.It is very English as KIRKUS reviews state in their diplomatic way.

    1. Okay, I'll admit that CHARACTERS was the other Cavan I just finished reading. There were things I found interesting about it, but I have to admit that at times it seemed to be just a particularly cliched and ridiculous romance novel. Hopefully I'll manage to write something more about it here, but we are certainly in agreement, Tina!

  2. OFF TOPIC--I read an article on Americans visiting the UK and 2 pieces of advice stuck---
    Do not mention over mention the USA"s help in the WAR
    and you must realise we eat a lot of meals based around sausages,potatos and peas.Have a good holiday you two.

    1. Well, I don't recall the war coming up as a topic of conversation very often on our last trip, Tina! But if it does I think, with the benefit of all my reading of WWII novels and memoirs, I will be more likely to focus on how much Brits suffered before the US finally dragged itself into the fight. And I do love sausages and potatoes--not to mention fish and chips and curry--so I think we'll be okay there!

  3. Rich Horton wrote:

    I'm always fascinated by authors so obscure I can't find out anything about them. Apparently Romilly Cavan was also a playwright -- probably one reason she didn't write that many novels. And one place I found speculated (without reason that I can see) that she was E. F. Benson's daughter, or perhaps E. F.'s brother A. C. Benson. Isabelle Wilson does seem the more popular choice, so I'm sure that's true.

    Which of her books didn't you like? I thought both THE DAUGHTERS OF RICHARD HERON and CHARACTERS IN ORDER OF THEIR APPEARANCE looked interesting based on description ... though to be sure the first commenter may well be entirely correct about the main characters being too sickly sweet. Anyway, I was thinking about finding a copy ...

    One interesting thing I found on the web was a completely dismissive review of THE SPLENDOUR FALLS by Graham Greene -- he confessed to giving up on page 78 or something.

    1. Sorry, Rich, I had to post your comment myself because I accidentally rejected it instead of accepting it--no more moderating comments from my Kindle!

      I had found the suggestions online that Cavan was the daughter of E. F. Benson, which would have been intriguing for sure but is simply wrong. I can't believe I didn't look back at her obituary, which John Herrington sent me when he researched her, before I wrote this post. It seems the rumor about her father may have been inspired by her first novel being about the daughters of a famous author. But in fact it was not a famous father she had, but a famous mother--novelist Diana Patrick (real name Desemea Wilson)! Clearly I have some updating to do on my list, so thank you for inspiring me to look more closely, as I should have done before.

      The other novel I read was CHARACTERS IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE. I hope to find time to write about it here, though our trip is looming and time is in short supply right now. In short, there are interesting things about it, and Cavan clearly intended something largely than a frivolous melodramatic romance, but I'm not at all sure she succeeded... I did--eventually--make it to the end though, unlike Graham Greene!


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