I don't remember now where I came across my Hogarth Press paperback copy of Edith Templeton's first novel, Summer in the Country (1950, published in the US as The Proper Bohemians, which seems to have confused whoever created her Wikipedia page). I know that I read it in late 2009, just as I was starting to expand my horizons, post grad school, into lesser known women authors. It was then a bit more than a year before I proceeded to her second and third novels, Living on Yesterday (1951) and The Island of Desire (1952), also in pleasant Hogarth Press editions from the 1980s. And finally, it was two more years until, just on the verge of beginning this blog (which explains why I've never written in any depth about her before), I tracked down her hard-to-find fourth novel, This Charming Pastime (1955), which Hogarth had declined to reissue. Later on in the 1950s, Templeton began publishing stories in The New Yorker, some of which were gathered in the 2002 collection The Darts of Cupid, which received considerable acclaim and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
That Templeton's earlier fiction has remained sadly in obscurity is surely at least in part due to her activities in the intervening decades. In 1966, she published, under the pseudonym Louise Walbrook, an erotic novel called Gordon, which appears to have been a precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey, about the pleasures of female subservience to a dominant male. The book, published by the famous Olympia Press in Paris, gained some notoriety, and was finally reprinted under Templeton's own name in 2003. After 1966, it appears that Templeton, apart from her periodical fiction, fell silent until 1992, when she tried her hand at a mystery novel, Murder in Estoril, which appears to have rehashed some of the sadomasochistic themes first explored in Gordon, and which seems to have had little success.
|Edith Templeton, from the jacket of|
The Surprise of Cremona
It's perhaps a little bit odd that Random House, having succeeded very nicely with Darts of Cupid, and deciding to proceed with reprinting Gordon, didn't see fit at that point to reprint Templeton's earlier fiction, but it appears that they were very much focused on marketing her as an erotic author and titillating readers with the books' covers, so perhaps the earlier works didn't fit their marketing scheme. And indeed, what a contrast! One has to assume that her obscurity is partly due to the fact that not many publishers could readily consider issuing all of her books in one group, since those most loved by one reader may well be unsatisfactory to another.
A recent sort-through and weeding-out of my bookcases, combined with the extra time allotted to me by COVID-19, brought Templeton back to mind. The three Hogarth paperbacks have held pride of place on an upper shelf of my bookcases since I first read them, but I realized I had forgotten just about everything about them except that they were something special. Glancing through them, I couldn't resist diving in, beginning logically with the first.
I remembered loving Summer in the Country in particular, and that it dealt with an eccentric family in Bohemia, but I certainly didn't recall how shockingly brilliant it was—or indeed just how shocking it is, period. It's an absolutely unique sort of animal, I think—rather like if a Barbara Pym novel had had an illicit love child with one of Dostoevsky's! That might be difficult to imagine, but it should make clear just how unique the book is.
At first, the reader is likely to feel more or less at home, apart perhaps from the setting on a large estate in the countryside outside of Prague. Here resides a splintered family of large landowners now reduced to genteel poverty, led by Tony Birk and Ida Birk-Borovec, a brother and sister, both widowed, Tony a sort of entertaining blowhard who tells it like it is but perhaps has a darker side, and Ida rather patient and practical and philosophical about the pains of life. She sees things as they are, but doesn't always feel it worthwhile to argue about them.
Rounding out the Birk household are Ida's children, a widowed daughter Alice, whose frustrations at her fate have left her preachy and self-righteous, and unmarried Bettine, who never wants to marry (having seen the examples around her), despite Alice's constant bullying. They can still afford to have servants, including Prochazka, the elderly coachman, prone to falling asleep while driving the carriage, and Emma the efficient and all-seeing German maid. Oh, and I've forgotten (as they themselves generally do) Louise, the widowed sister of Tony and Ida, who lives on their estate, having been bought out of her share years before, but to whom they do not speak—as Tony tells a visitor:
Looks like a servant, but worse than a servant, if you know what I mean. Our maids wear black and white aprons. But she wears a black apron, black alpaca. You can't miss it. That's my sister Louise. … Well, we don't talk to her; family matters—you know how it is. But she comes up to the castle year after year and stays there in summer. She is so mean that she will not pay for holidays.
So far so good. The English country comedy transported to Bohemia, one might think. But read on.
|Original cover of the 1950 edition|
The visitor is Raoul Marek, a sort of fop from Prague, who met the family in town (they also have a town house, despite their financial state—they are property rich and cash poor) and was invited to stay, perhaps as a potential match for poor Bettine. As the novel opens, Tony is leaving to pick Marek up from the station, so our introduction to the eccentricities of the menage is largely through Marek's eyes. Imagine being shown around your host's home and having the following exchange:
'Still, this is a nice and sunny room you've got; it used to be a nursery once.'
'Is that why the windows are barred, Mr. Birk? Very wise, I think. Very good idea, with small children.'
'Lord no. I had that grille put in years before, on the doctor's advice. This was my wife's bedroom, you see. She was melancholic. Always talked of committing suicide. I always said it was stupid to make all this fuss to guard her. If people want to kill themselves, let them, if it gets as bad as that. And it didn't stop her, of course. She took an overdose of sleeping drugs in the end.'
'How terrible for you, Mr. Birk.'
'Well, I don't know. We've all got to die, you know; can't live for ever. Now come and look at the view. Don't get that in Prague, do you, eh?'
Though sometimes the startling revelations are for the reader alone, and Marek remains oblivious, as here a few pages later:
They were discussing the illness of one of the kitchenmaids. Mrs. Birk-Borovec had been nursing her for the past three days, giving her drugs and applying poultices. Now she had recovered.
'Mr. Marek, don't you think that mama is a saint?' asked Alice. 'She did simply everything for the girl. She is wonderful that way, you know.'
'Not at all, Alice,' said her mother dryly. 'If you don't stand over them they don't take their medicine. That's all there is to it.'
'My God, she is businesslike,' thought the young man. It did not occur to him that there was the contrast between two ways of living. Alice, the younger generation, had already been reared in town and was inclined to view everything with a sentimental eye. The old lady had been born and brought up on the estate, and she knew that it is no act of charity if the farmer helps the cow to calve, or ministers to the sprained ankle of his helper. Animals and people alike have to be kept fit.
The test of whether you find this novel as delightful as I do might well be whether you laugh out loud at these two passages or gasp in horror. Not quite a cheerful English drawing-room comedy (as much as I adore those too). This comedy is very much of the "red in tooth and claw" category. But the real story is only just beginning, and gains momentum with the arrival at the estate of Alice's married daughter Margot, who has, we discover, been to all intents and purposes sold off to a wealthy businessman, Oscar Ritter, in exchange for the essential influx of cash to turn the fortunes of the Birk estate around.
One may come to feel, as I did, that Oscar, a needy, unbearable prig who finds everyone terribly lacking except himself ("The old lady raised her eyes and looked at him. An old Army joke, beloved by her brother, flitted through her mind. The whole squadron was out of step; only our Jamie wasn't."), may simply have married the wrong member of the family. Alice the self-righteous martyr might have found him right up her alley, but Margot is much more free and easy—perhaps the only really likable character in the novel. She and Oscar had planned to visit the family together, but Oscar has been held up on business, so rather than waiting devotedly at his side, Margot has come ahead without him. The dangerous element of this is that she is threatening to refuse to go back to him, which in turn threatens the future of the estate that depends so much on his investments. How this tension plays out among this extraordinary, unforgettable cast of characters is brilliantly executed—in fact, amazingly so for a first novel. I've certainly remembered why, more than a decade ago, I felt this was one of the best "lost" novels I'd come across.
If you won't accept my word for it, however, I have someone to back me up. The Hogarth reprints contained new introductions by no lesser figure than Anita Brookner, who certainly knew good fiction when she saw it and who compared Templeton's work to that of Turgenev, Jean Rhys, and Theodor Fontane (whose Effi Briest is a Persephone reprint). She goes on:
Yet although these novels are essentially novels of manners, they are also something more, for running beneath the social comedy, so beautifully conducted by all the principal players, there lie acts of madness, of revenge, and of revolt, resorted to in extreme moments, but—and this is the singular thing—never regretted. It is the strange completeness of these acts, and the density of the context in which they are committed, that give Edith Templeton's novels their unusual savour.
Turgenev, Jean Rhys, Fontane: I would add Schnitzler, for that dash of Viennese concentration on intrigue. All these strains add up to a world of great complexity and apparent simplicity, a world in which everything is foreign and everything has enormous style.
How could you resist? Well, obviously, you shouldn't. Summer in the Country is often hilarious, but also deliciously wry and dark and morbid, and I defy any reader not to gasp in surprise—and, perhaps, in delight, whether they admit it or not—at the ending. It's also rather telling that no one seems to comment on the extraordinary bad luck that's apparent from the fact that just about the entire family is widowed. One may find oneself pausing to consider this when one turns the final page. One might also find oneself inclined to go back and start reading from the beginning.
But I've now turned, rather illogically, to Templeton's fourth novel, This Charming Pastime, to see why it would have been left out of Hogarth's reprints in the 1980s. I think I can already sense why, but that will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile, I've also placed orders for the aforementioned Darts of Cupid and for Templeton's one other published book, which I neglected to mention above: The Surprise of Cremona: One Woman's Adventures in Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Ravenna, Urbino and Arezzo (1954), a highly praised travel book about Templeton's own journey, after her husband's death (widowhood again!), which seems to have become somewhat collectible despite having been reprinted a couple of times. I'm not sure I'll ever be quite desperate enough to sample Gordon or Murder in Estoril, but the travel book and the New Yorker stories sounded too enticing to pass up.