Friday, May 7, 2021

Revelling in misfortune: MARY CLIVE (as HANS DUFFY), Seven by Seven (1933)

"For pity's sake don't try to abolish vice over here," said Lady Cadmium. "Nowadays the only decent house maids one can get are fallen women. Of course in my service fiat it doesn't matter so much, but"—her imagination swinging along,—"when we lived at Crashams I quite gave up the local registry and applied to the hospital instead."

Most readers, if they know Mary Clive at all, know her as the author of the much-loved Christmas with the Savages (1955), a part novel/part memoir tale of a very prim, anti-social 8-year-old girl's Edwardian Christmas with a horde of other children she considers beneath her. That book has been perennially popular since it first appeared, and is even in print now (!) from Puffin. Many fans of Savages don't realize that Clive (née Pakenham, sister of Pansy Pakenham, who also published two novels, and biographer Violet Powell, who was also the wife of Anthony Powell) had earlier published four novels under the pseudonym "Hans Duffy". And those who do realize likely find it impossible to get hold of any of them. They are mostly nonexistent outside the British Library or the Bodleian, but for whatever reason, the second, Seven by Seven (1933), is available in the U.S. for reading or downloading via Hathi Trust here

The novel follows the mostly cynical, jaded, superficial Sexton family through darkly funny trials and travails over a number of years. Led by the shallow Lady Cadmium ("Daisy, Lady Cadmium, had three sons and three daughters, their father dying when the youngest was born. This effeminate action shocked her."), the family has seen better days. Her children include Kate, who marries an aspiring politician; Orange, who believes (literally) that the world only exists when he is present (and feels he did a particularly fine job creating Oxford); Dan, who marries a wealthy American with a healthy sexual appetite, whose fortune saves the family home; Susie, who marries a charming good-for-nothing, is abandoned, and becomes a bestselling novelist; Wilfred, Susie's rather tragic twin; and Frankie, the youngest, largely ignored.

But it is Frankie who, becoming an observer in her inability to join in with the others, is ultimately perhaps the "main" character of the novel, though she appears less frequently than some of the others. She is often bewildered by her siblings and by the cynical high society around her, and decides to isolate herself in a cottage with her former governess. She is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the only one who can see the family ghosts the others are always bragging about. Her character is hilariously summed up by her favorite childhood game:

It was her own invention and she played it by herself. The rules were simple, you pretended you were a bear and sat under the writing-table motionless for hours on end with the waste-paper basket over your head. Through the bars of the basket you could see everyone perfectly while they probably never noticed you were there.

I can relate a bit to Frankie, I'm afraid…

Mary Clive looking rather irresistible,
photographed by Cecil Beaton,
from the National Portrait Gallery

Clive seems to be having a lovely time skewering the Sextons' continuing pretensions and social uselessness, but whether or not a reader will have the same fun will largely depend on how much one enjoys dark humor. For instance, here's Lady Cadmium gleefully commenting on the family home's remarkable terrace:

"It's a good twenty to thirty foot drop, and the masonry at the top is very rocky, so you're quite liable to fall over any time you lean against it. If you do it's certain death, of course, as there's a paved walk at the bottom. I believe someone was killed there once, but only a housemaid and her baby or something."

These are the classic monstrous gentry that we've met in Rachel Ferguson or Elizabeth Eliot, but the influence I felt most hovering over Seven by Seven was Evelyn Waugh, whose Vile Bodies had appeared only a couple of years earlier, his own skewering of the upper classes making giddy light of everything from car crashes to white slavery. It's hard not to see Waugh's influence in the following passage, for example:

"My eldest daughter," said Lady Cadmium, "is the only human being I ever met who literally tears her hair. She says she finds it such a comfort when she's worried."

Kate never said anything of the sort, but she certainly had a great many worries. Levington-Boyle was not such a catch as had been hoped. In one year the business in which he had been getting on so nicely closed down, he fell seriously ill with internal disorders and their first baby died. Since then they had been left two properties, to both of which he was attached by memories of early childhood and family ties. One was in Cumberland, the other in Co. Cork, but they resembled each other in that neither carried quite enough money for the upkeep. Their surviving baby, Nigel, had an accident which affected his spine. "I believe Kate revels in misfortune," said her mother.

Or for that matter in this passage later on about getting out the vote for Kate's husband, who is now running for Parliament:

"Tell Mrs. Wilfred Sexton when she comes in. She is keeping a special list for the weak-minded. We're making a strong push with them. The Liberals may have a few but I don't think Labour can have any. After all, there must only be a limited number, even in Crashington."

Which sounds a lot like the present-day playbook of certain political players…

The structure of Seven by Seven is a bit loosy-goosy, jumping across years from one chapter to the next with a sometimes bewilderingly large cast of characters that had me paging back and forth to remember who someone was. I found it was also a book to be best enjoyed in smallish portions, as the jaded cleverness and black humor became just a touch tiring in too large a dose. (The critical blurb Gollancz chose for the cover of the book could indeed be double-edged: "It is not often one can complain that a book has too much wit in it, but such a complaint might be justified, if ever, here.")

But all told it's a rather fascinating piece of literary history. One wonders why a Vile Bodies gets remembered and treated as a classic while a Seven by Seven fades into complete obscurity. Apart from the obvious fact of its author being a woman, I mean.

I'd love to be able to read Clive's other early novels—In England Now (1932), Lucasta's Wedding (1936), and Under the Sugar-Plum Tree (1937). But alas, that doesn't look terribly likely, so for now I'll be adding them to my Hopeless Wish List. Alas and alack.


  1. Here's how Mary keeps her skin looking lovely:

    1. Thank you for sharing this! I tweeted it late yesterday too. :-)

  2. In some of Mrs. Thirkell's later novels (post WWII) the maids are Edna and Doris, who have children of shame, as she terms it. Apparently, they were the best help around!
    Oh, wait, come to think of it, my cleaning woman has several children of shame. BUT now she has taken big time to religion, so I am the one who is wrong.

    1. I hope that your fallen woman at least does a good job cleaning, Tom!

    2. And I hope she doesn't read this blog.

  3. Oh this looks really interesting, if very darkly cynical! Incidentally, I'm currently reading Clive's memoir "Brought Up and Brought Out", which I managed to snag on ebay at a relatively affordable price. It has quite a similar style, by the looks of things-- a lot of (perhaps too much?) caustic wit and cutting social criticism. Still, it does a particularly good job of depicting Pakenham's somewhat chaotic childhood and youth. I particularly enjoyed the sections on her time at a girls' domestic economy school and later as a debutante-- they're fascinating from a social history perspective and also incredibly funny. Would definitely recommend it if you can ever get hold of a copy!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. When libraries finally reopen, it looks like Brought Up and Brought Out is actually possible to acquire!

  4. Oh, I hope so. I've been trying to find a copy for years. I have The Day of Reckoning and Christmas with the Savages but that's all. Thanks for telling about Seven by Seven.


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