Saturday, January 22, 2022

'Hellish dark and smells of cheese': ISOBEL STRACHEY, Suzanna (1956)

Not (alas) the cover of my copy

Juliet glanced at her figure in a long mirror hanging beside a print of horses at full gallop, uncertain whether she accepted the probability of reflected beauty, and quickly sank into the hot water, her mind still fermenting with a host of tiny worries.

Everyone has thoughts about how they see Juliet Tancred and what she should do with her life, but she can't seem to see herself at all. She's a "stone nymph beside a fountain" or, for her long-suffering presumed fiancé, "the Madonna, the pale moon goddess and the lily-maid of Astolat" (the last better known to us mortals as the lady of Shalott).

Timothy Harper, a neighbour who has given up a promising career as a musician to take over the family estate from his hard-working mother Prim, has long been in love with Juliet, and there is considerable pressure from family and friends to finally make their relationship official. But Juliet can't bring herself to commit, perhaps in part due to the way Timothy idealizes and worships her ('Timothy gives me a sad feeling of inadequacy as if I were a damp squib which wouldn't go off.') She decides instead that she must take a flat in London and establish herself in a career.

In the meantime, she becomes intrigued by Edgar Dunn, a 40-ish friend of her family, who is married to the older Lady Suzanna Chalisfont, an elegant, attractive woman who fears her hold on Edgar is slipping as she grows older and more frail. Edgar, increasingly obsessed with Catholicism, is also regretting that he passed over a lovely young girl (of whom Juliet reminds him) to marry Suzanna, but his religion won't allow for divorce, so he contents himself with mentoring Juliet during occasional semi-clandestine meetings in London.

If that's not a complex enough stew of potential drama for you, we also get the sudden reappearance of Suzanna's first husband Stanislaus, presumed dead for over a decade, who reappears and expects to resume their old flame, which Suzanna manages to do while keeping both her husbands in the same house. And we have Tara, a friend of Juliet's from her office, upon whom Juliet more or less foists Timothy to take the pressure off of herself, then wonders if she has made a mistake when Tara falls for him hook line and sinker.

It's quite the soap opera cast, really, but of course in the hands of Isobel Strachey (of whom I've wrote a couple of times recently—see here), it becomes quite a lot more than melodrama, though—unsurprisingly if you've read those earlier posts—I wasn't entirely sure exactly what it was. Unusually for me, I waited a week or two after reading it before attempting this review, and as happened with the other two Stracheys I've read it has affected me almost more in retrospect than in actually reading it.

Ultimately, it's a story of two women, at opposite ends of their adult lives, navigating the clichĂ©d "man's world" in their own ways. As a gay man, I think I was initially attracted most to Suzanna, who—though she would undoubtedly be irritating as hell to live with—has a glamour and pinache that seems to appeal to my people… But even with her wealth and social position, Suzanna has, quite literally, built her life around men, and around being the irresistible object of their affections. So that, on reflection, it’s the confused, awkward Juliet, whom one often wants shake, who is surely the real heroine here—even in her lack of self-assurance and inability to clearly see a future for herself, she decides she doesn't want to be a stone nymph or a madonna. Her way of avoiding it is messy, but it's the 1950s and avoiding domination by men would surely not have been easy for any woman.

If I've made this novel sound like a feminist diatribe, it's certainly not. Strachey is, for all her occasional flamboyance, far too subtle for that. She just gives you the characters, in all their imperfections, and expects you to put the pieces together, and the ending is nothing like a triumphant win for Juliet—and it's a downright tragic one for Suzanna.

When I was reading Suzanna, I was disappointed at first. It seemed rather lackluster by comparison to the other two Stracheys I've read. The bold, striking metaphors are not as prevalent here, and apart from Suzanna herself the characters seem relatively ordinary, real people you could see anywhere. I thought perhaps Strachey wasn't so inspired this time around, but now I wonder if it wasn't rather that she felt this novel more personally than most. From the few descriptions of Strachey herself that I've come across, I wonder if she didn't identify herself a bit with both her hopeful young heroine and her tragic older sophisticate. At any rate, I think this might now be my favorite of the three Stracheys I've read—like fine wines, I'm beginning to realize that Isobel Strachey novels require some aging to fully appreciate. And I now have a complete set of all seven of them to be getting on with...

But it is not the case that Strachey's brilliant figural flares are entirely absent here. I mean, what of this portrait of Timothy's mother Prim:

Prim bent over him in consternation, taut and frail, not daring to touch him, her face pinched with suppressed emotion; then laid her hand for a moment bravely on his shoulder and proceeded gently and sadly along the passage, her narrow head drooped forward on her long neck like a tulip too heavy for its stalk.

And then there's the following, in which Juliet, in a tense moment whose details I won't reveal, nervously babbles a story which may just be intended to represent her own limited perspective on life:

Her white complexion took on a high colour; she talked twice as rapidly as usual and insisted on a long exchange of funny stories including a description of somebody called Mr. Jorrocks who looked into a cupboard in mistake for a window and being asked what sort of a night it was, replied 'hellish dark and smells of cheese,' which she repeated several times with differing emphasis.

Indeed, how many of us sometimes think the world is hellish dark and smells of cheese simply because we're looking in our own cupboard instead of at reality? (That sounds rather like a sappy greeting card, though, doesn't it?)


  1. What an absolute treat your reviews are! Have been enjoying your blog for a few months and my goodness but 'Hellish dark and smells of cheese' is an incredible phrase rescue. Thank you : )

  2. Love your reviews! The lily maid of Astolat is Elaine. I don't believe she's the same person as the Lady of Shalott, the doomed weaver. Though both die and float down to Camelot.


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