[Another unpublished review written some time last year, following a very kind communication from a Dunning fan, as described below. I held off publishing it until we'd got round to considering the rights situation, but it's one of my favorite finds as a blogger and, indeed, my best claim to having found a truly great (in a literary sense) "lost" masterpiece.]
But wasn't it silly, standing there waving her arms up and down and watching her big white nightgown moving so unreally in the darkness around her? If she just turned quickly on her toes like the children did when they were pretending to be fairies blown through the garden by the wind, her nightgown fled out away from her, leaving her body bare and light against the air. But it was not delicate or nice to think of herself as naked. It was all right from her head down to the top of her collar, and from her knees down to her toes she was flesh and blood again, but in between there was nothing at all—just a conveniently sized dummy's model on which to hang her blue gingham frock and white apron.
This extraordinary novel, undoubtedly influenced by Woolf if a bit less radically experimental, takes place in and around the home of the well-to-do Kellaways, a family perhaps not unlike Woolf's Ramsays from To the Lighthouse. But here, by wonderful contrast with Woolf, the Kellaways themselves remain firmly in the background, rather ethereal supporting characters in the small dramas of which the lead actors are two of the Kellaway's young servants and a young neighbor, a classic impoverished gentlewoman, working as governess for the local vicar.
But while The Spring Begins evokes To the Lighthouse, it goes well beyond Woolf's areas of expertise in its focus on servant girls and their burgeoning sexuality—neither topics dear Virginia would have been able to address so vividly and convincingly as Katherine Dunning does here. Perhaps you might say this is To the Lighthouse crossed with Picnic at Hanging Rock, though that hardly sufficiently describes its seductive charms.
There's the lovely Lottie, raised in an orphanage, in awe of her "betters" and thoroughly terrified of men due to the horrors gleefully described by the stern Nurse (a sort of opposite of Juliet's nurse, obsessed with morbid fantasies of brutality against women), yet vividly awake to the nature and people around her. She could most clearly be a Woolf character, with her intense responses to everything from sunshine and flowers to the morning light or the way her nightgown billows around her. And alongside the horrors Nurse has warned her about is the figure of George, an employee on the estate, who doesn't seem such a monster… It's a delight to be inside Lottie's head:
At the edge of the sea Lottie halted, and spread out her hands a little. She was utterly alone, here by the sea's edge. Behind her was the sand, pale and cool-looking now, and the dark trees that guarded the house.
She drew in a long deep breath. It was heavenly here, so coolly silent, so vast and beautiful with the evening's stillness. Out further from the land the sea grew coloured with a pink that glanced lightly off the glistening water and changed and broke a little with each of the water's smooth, scarcely noticeable, movements.
Well, this would not do. This was not the way to find the baby's toy. The blessed little love! She went down on her hands and knees and began running her fingers over the sand. One of the other children might have trodden it beneath the loose surface. But she could not find it anywhere, though she searched over a large area. And now what would Nurse say to her?
Then there's racy, sensual Maggie, the scullery maid, who has always kept herself a "good girl" but finds herself submitting to the lusty gardener whose passion for her, among other satisfactions, lends her an unprecedented sense of dignity in her constant scrubbing and sweeping and in her poor treatment by a scornful, never-satisfied Cook. She's an earthy girl, who knows her own mind even when her mind is overruled by her body, and it's hard not to love her as well.
And there's Hessie, a "plain" young woman, impoverished middle class, constantly thinking of what is proper and acceptable behavior as a result of her mother's obsession with gentility. Hessie is a bit older than the other two protagonists, and has grown desperate for love both as a result of terrible loneliness and because of the impending marriage of her younger sister. Hessie's is the most difficult head to be inside—neurotic and needy, pathetic and insecure—and yet it's impossible not to be moved by her struggles to escape her cage. She convinces herself that Mr. Saul, a clergymen, is attracted to her, though it is crystal clear to the reader that he is barely aware of her existence, as when she answers a telephone call while working in the vicar's home:
"I'm afraid Mr. Benson is in the garden, but I could take a message."
"Thanks, but I'll answer this myself."
Really there were moments when Mr. Benson was almost rude. There was no need to push her aside like that. Mr. Saul had sounded as if he had wanted to go on speaking to her. The way he had said "Hessie?" and then as though a light had dawned on him, he had added lingeringly, "Oh yes, Hessie!"
The lives of these three main characters rarely overlap and they are only vaguely aware of one another (though Hessie stares enviously at Lottie's youthful beauty once at a picnic). But they are thematically interwoven because all three are at a stage of awakening sensuality and desire, though in wildly varying ways.
Although we fear for all three women now and again (Mrs. Kellaway's brother, Andrew, clearly takes an interest in Lottie, Maggie risks a pregnancy that would savage her life, and who can say what Hessie might be driven to do?), Dunning admirably resists the Woman-as-Victim theme a lesser writer might have invoked. Instead, the brutal murder of an unknown maid while Lottie is with the Kellaways on holiday stands in for the harsh reality that could have been awaiting any of our three vulnerable heroines. I was in such suspense at times about their fates, and was nearly giddy to find that all three get happy endings of a sort, in keeping with their personalities, though Hessie's is, as one would expect, the most ambivalent.
I can hardly express how passionately I loved this novel that is itself so quietly and beautifully focused on passion. These women, though acted upon by employers, neighbors, family members, and the sometimes degrading situations of their work, are, if not in control of their own destinies (surely no one is really that), at least primarily driven by their own desires and needs, which is unbelievably refreshing in a novel of this period. All three women, though completely different in their experiences, are allowed their dignity and their sense of themselves, even while frightened or threatened or driven nearly to hysteria. We know them, and know how they have come to where they are. Even Hessie, whose mind is the most agonizing to see inside, as she delusionally convinces herself of the desire and admiration of every man she meets, is fighting a rather noble battle to free herself from her mother's repressive prudishness and class sensibility. We see her move from blind acceptance of her mother's gentility to gradual rebellion against some of those sacred precepts, and it's rather heroic, if no less painful, to witness.
Because Dunning's heroines are so perceptive and aware of their surroundings, we get fascinating details of the running of a country house and the lives of servants, as well as small town life and class awareness. Not to mention the marvelous realistic details that make the family's day at the beach very like experiencing the beach yourself—you can feel the sea breeze as Lottie does, and the sand getting uncomfortably into crevices, the waves breaking, children laughing, Nurse nagging. You can feel Hessie's constraining clothes, Maggie's aching muscles, and Lottie's anxiety and excitement when George appears.This is a really brilliant, wonderful book—one of the best "lost" works I've come across as a blogger (!!)—and I owe a debt of gratitude to Roderick Barman, an historian and scholar from British Columbia, for contacting me to recommend the book. I had come across a mention of it years ago in a review, and had had it flagged ever since as possibly of interest (along with literally hundreds of others), but Roderick's rave recommendation inspired an immediate Interlibrary Loan request and an eager reading of the book as soon as it arrived. Dunning also wrote three other novels—Stephen Sherrin (1932), Whatever the Heart Appoints (1950), and The Bright Blue Eye (1952)—which Roderick very kindly gifted to me after he'd read them. He felt that none of them lived up to The Spring Begins, and I have to agree, though both of the latter were enjoyable and intriguing in their own way, and Kathy, a good friend of this blog, fell in love with The Bright Blue Eye, As I value her judgment highly, I may have to have a second look at that later, very different and more lighthearted work.