Friday, January 24, 2020

The show must go on: BARBARA WILLARD, Echo Answers (1952)

Having read Barbara Willard's very fun Snail books, which I mentioned briefly in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen post at the New Year, I became curious about her novels for adults. She wrote more than a dozen adult novels from the 1930s to 1950s, before turning her attention for most of the rest of her career to children's books, in which realm she became by far best known for her historical Mantlemass series (1970-1992), which follows one family through more than two centuries of English history.

Willard's adult novels seem to gravitate toward the theatre world, which is not surprising since, according to her Wikipedia page, she was "the daughter of the Shakespearean actor Edmund Willard and the great-niece of Victorian era actor Edward Smith Willard." I wouldn't know either of those actors if they stood up in my soup, but suffice it to say Willard's knowledge of actors and the theatre comes through in Echo Answers and adds an extra interest to its story.

We meet Sarah Philmore, a young woman whose lover was lost in the war, at the wedding of another ex-flame to another woman. She is, clearly, unlucky in love. At the wedding, she runs into an old friend, a war widow herself, and spontaneously agrees to fill in for her for six months as secretary to Arnold Chater, a bestselling novelist quickly moving past his prime. As part of her role, she moves in with Chater and his family—kind, unflappable Elsa, his wife; Elsa's mother, Dame Lucia Peverell, a famous retired actress; son Barney, who has written a play with all the artistic integrity Arnold himself sold out long ago; and daughter Rosalind, who has decided to be an actress as much to gain Lucia's love as out of any calling.

Sarah becomes enmeshed with the family's problems, and when her friend returns sooner than expected to take back her job, she is at a loss. She begins an affair with Barney, whose play, about a girl he loved who died, is about to be produced. She is attracted to him largely because he reminds her of her lover lost in the war, but this "echo" is in turn overshadowed by Barney's own, when his play's lead is perfectly cast with a young actress who reminds him vividly of the past. Rather interestingly, this also casts a shadow back over Sarah's earlier love affair, as she wonders if that lover, too, would have become similarly distracted with time.

It's a very pleasant and enjoyable little melodrama with bits of humor scattered throughout and with interesting, life-like characters and enough literary and theatrical glamour to keep things moving along nicely. It lacks the cheerful joie-de-vivre of the Snail books, and there's a bit too much emotional navel-gazing here and there for my taste, but what makes up for this are some very striking passages that show Williard to be a sophisticated observer of human nature. For instance, I'll always remember this observation when the circumstance arises:

She ran up the steps and stood shaking herself just inside the door, while an elderly woman crossing the hall paused to watch her with disapproval and just that shade of contempt the dry have for the wet.

I had never thought of it before, but isn't this precisely how dry people do look at wet people?

There are also enough poignant references to the war years to validate this novel's inclusion on my WWII list in the Postwar section. Here is Sarah recalling her wartime love, and the unique pain that must have been experienced by many women with no socially or legally "legitimate" standing with a man:

No one had known that she and Tim were lovers and she had heard of his death at second-hand. She had gone home for a twenty-four-hour leave and been told by a friend met outside the station of the latest loss in the neighbourhood. He was mourned by his family and there was no suggestion of any other claim. Well, there was nothing very distinctive about that; unofficial widowhood could hardly have been more common. But of all the wretchedness of bereavement there was probably none more poignant, more difficult of acceptance, than this secret grief that could never be displayed…

And here is Willard somewhat evoking Barbara Noble's The House Opposite in her description of the undramatic reaction to bombs:

She looked round the little theatre and remembered the ambitious, not quite intelligible poetic drama she had seen here with Tim during one of his leaves. In the middle of the performance there had been an air raid; no one had taken any notice. It all seemed a very long time ago, but the subject of Barney's play linked the two periods with a firm insistence that was almost frightening. How did we manage, she wondered for the hundredth time; how did we manage to live at all with the bombs falling and that incessant threat  hanging over us, the perpetual uncertainty whether we would see the morning? She smiled to herself. That undramatic acceptance of drama seemed almost melodramatic now.

But one of my favorite passages here has nothing to do with the war, but rather with the theatre, and demonstrates Willard's personal knowledge of theatrical life. Julie, Barney's leading lady, has retreated to her home following a conflict and is threatening not to appear on opening night. Dame Lucia takes matters into her own hands to save Barney's production and the talking-to she gives Julie is a classic of "show must go on" philosophy:

"I don't know what Barney's done to you," she said, "and frankly I don't care. But if he had spat in your face and insulted you at the moment you were making your entrance, if he had broken your heart and laughed at doing it, you should still be able to go on to the stage and play your scene, and play it with all the power and the feeling in you, right to the end, to the last word, to the final gesture, tears or laughter, death or life, as it was written."

Julie swung on her heel with a sharp, shrill laugh.

"It sounds very impressive."

"It is very impressive," Lucia said.

Echo Answers is not an absolute favorite for me, but it's intriguing and entertaining enough that I'll be on the lookout for more of Willard's adult novels. One of her earliest novels, Joy Befall Thee (1934), is about three generations of theatre costume designers, which could be an ideal use for her theatrical knowledge, and The Dogs Do Bark (1948), set at a seaside resort, seems to have potential as a postwar novel. And although I don't generally read historical fiction, perhaps I should have a gander at the Mantlemass series?


  1. This sounds intriguing. I love the Mantlemass books (although at least one is so tragic I could never bring myself to reread it) and that resulted in my collecting most of her juvenile books. The Snail books did not make as much of an impression on me as on you - I prefer the two books about the Tower family and one called The Battle of Wednesday Week (step-sibling theme) - but her ability to convey a scene and characters with a few well chosen words is amazing. In the second Mantlemass book, the main character who is an orphan, is taken to meet a mysterious gentleman, slowly revealed to be Richard III on the night before the battle of Bosworth Field. For this boy to meet and lose his father in just a few moments is chilling. It is really a haunting series.

    1. Lovely, thanks for the recommendations and for making me want to read the Mantlemass books too!

  2. That's so interesting, I hadn't realised she'd written books for adults at all!

    1. Yes, and writing this review seems to have inspired me to request a few more of them. Despite some shortcomings, this one has stayed with me in a way that some books don't.


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