Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Sneak preview, FM34: ROMILLY CAVAN, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940)

From author Charlotte Moore's fascinating introduction:

Romilly Cavan was born Isabelle Wilson in July 1914, on the very eve of the First World War. Her mother, Desemea Wilson, produced thirty gloriously-jacketed romantic novels under the pseudonym Diana Patrick, and when Isabelle began to write she also adopted a pseudonym, "Cavan" perhaps in homage to her Irish heritage. Her first novel, Heron, was published when she was only twenty-one. At the launch party she met the literary journalist Eric Hiscock, pronounced Hiscoe. They married six years later, by which time she had written five more novels, of which Beneath The Visiting Moon, Evening Standard Book of the Month, would be the last. Eric Hiscock claimed that the wartime paper shortage was the reason Romilly gave up novels for plays. Encouraged by Noel Coward, she wrote twelve.

She is a shadowy figure. An early dust-jacket photograph shows thin, fine-boned intensity. Eric described her as "dark Irish, very secretive"; she wouldn't let him read anything she'd written until it was finished. She aimed high, and was jealously competitive with other female authors. She couldn't stand to have Edna O'Brien mentioned, said Eric, wouldn't allow her books over the threshold—but after Romilly's death (from cancer, aged 61) he opened a cupboard and found O'Brien's complete works concealed within. Perfectionism, as much as the paper shortage, may have prematurely ended her novel-writing career.

Wonderful details, and I'm sure Charlotte is dead-on, but I might put a more positive spin on things and suggest that, having achieved perfection with this novel, she may have felt a bit "I came, I saw, I conquered" and simply moved on to other challenges.

But if you're afraid I'm overstating (and see here for my original giddy review back in 2016), here's a sampling from the New York Times review of the book:

But, quite apart from wartime implications, what a delightful little world it is Miss Cavan has created and how truly representative of the time and the circumstances! One does not know whether to admire more the skill with which the story is told from the adolescent viewpoint or the sly quietness with which the elders' share in the cosmos is revealed.

It can't be often that Times reviewers resort to exclamation marks...

In the Observer, no lesser figure than novelist L. P. Hartley reviewed the book, slightly condescending perhaps but enthusiastic nevertheless:

The pattern of Miss Romilly Cavan's long story is almost negligible; nothing happens, and Sarah is too romantic and too young for us to take her troubles very seriously [this from the author of The Go-Between?!?!]. But the detail is enchanting. Seldom do we find minds so sensitive to the nuance of an idea, spirits so responsive to fine shades of joy and sorrow. Facetiousness is the author's danger, but it is a danger she runs over and over again to come back with some prize of truth or fancy deliciously expressed.

But the best summing up of all (and the first time, to my knowledge, that one of our reprints has garnered a comparison with Virginia Woolf—not to mention Dodie Smith!) comes from Charlotte's intro:

Beneath the Visiting Moon's surface sparkle illuminates sombre depths. Lonely, unfulfilled adults, traumatised children, and, most convincingly of all, girls on the exhausting treadmill of adolescence are created by Romilly Cavan with something of Dodie Smith's lightness of touch, something of Virginia Woolf's sense of human tragedy. The combination leaves us sharing Elisabeth's feeling that "all, (with the exception of the world) was well with the world". Cavan's achievement is the very essence of bittersweet.

Beneath the Visiting Moon is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.


  1. Oh, my. Do I just sign my entire September check over to new titles? Well, I certainly have done worse!
    WHY would I ever think I might run out of things to read!

  2. I was interested to see the phrase "beneath the visiting moon" on the last page of Nothing To Report!



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