“Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me…”
(Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare)
I saw a madcap production of Twelfth Night just recently, and yet in the midst of the madcap nature of the production those beautiful words rang out, and reminded me of a book I had waiting. – Fleur in her world had sent me this lovely copy of The Willow Cabin last Christmas as part of the Librarything secret Santa Virago gift exchange.
It’s not often I get book hangover – usually no matter how wonderful a book – or how terrible, I find myself able to move on fairly happily to the next book. The Willow Cabin may turn out to be one of my favourite Viragoes ever and I think affected my enjoyment quite adversely, of the two books I read just after it. I also find it particularly hard sometimes to write about a book I loved as much as I did The Willow Cabin – it’s almost as if I have a strange mixture of too much to say and not quite enough. I know I can’t adequately describe the true wonder of this novel, but Frankau’s characters, are beautifully explored, the women particularly, her London of the 1930’s and 40’s becoming fabulously real. The final section of the novel entitled Time Harvested, I found exceptionally poignant. Frankau builds a picture slowly of the lives of these people, as the final pieces of the puzzle are slotted together at the end of the novel, the lives of these people are revealed entirely and the reader only then understands these exceptionally drawn characters.
He came over to the chair, pulled her out of it and stood holding her hands. ‘If I were really grown-up now, I should say good-bye to you and walk out of your life. And yet I cannot bear to go. And Oh Caroline, I would give my soul to be twenty-two again, d’you see?’
The novel opens in 1936; Caroline Seward is a twenty-two year old actress whose talent shows great promise. Living in London with her mother and prosperous step-father; the-spoilers-of the-fun as she calls them – Caroline is ripe for escape. At an after show party Catherine meets Michael Knowle a surgeon in his late thirties, married, though estranged from his wife, and almost instantly Michael becomes the entire focus of her life. Caroline leaves home, moving to a small hotel, and embarks on a relationship with Michael – who is unable to get a divorce – that will last years. Caroline loves Michael completely; Michael is Caroline’s whole world. Deliberately allowing her career to take a back seat to her relationship, Caroline’s other friends and colleagues are frustrated at this throwing away of her talent, especially Dennis Brookfield who is a friend of Michael and his wife Mercedes and loves Caroline himself. Mercedes, living in France throws a shadow over Caroline’s happiness; Caroline silently calls her names, and is forever trying to understand the motivations of this woman she has never met. Mercedes as much of an obsession for Caroline at times as the man she loves.
In the years before the war, Caroline and Michael slip into an easy rhythm of life, Caroline residing in the hotel, living for the next brief meeting with Michael, half-heartedly taking a few small theatrical roles. The couple have to content themselves with carefully orchestrated midnight meetings at Michael’s London home, and the anonymity of foreign places, as Michael himself continues his brilliant work at the hospital. Their relationship appears almost legitimised on a trip to America, meeting with some friends of Michael and Mercedes Knowle – who instantly understand how matters stand between Michael and Caroline. Later Caroline meets Dorothy, Michael’s sister, who hadn’t got along with Mercedes, but who likes Caroline. However, always in the background is Mercedes, and then war comes. War brings the pain of separation, as Michael is stationed abroad, and Caroline in the A.T.S lives only to hear from him. War brings change and upheaval for many people, including Caroline.
“Now she saw that the look of Michael stopped short below the temples; the woman had large dark eyes, a short nose and a small chin. For a moment her expression did not change; the whole face seemed stony and vigilant. Then she smiled.”
In 1948 Caroline travels to America again, this time as a successful actress on tour with a play nearing the end of its long run. Still needing answers, Caroline decides to meet with Mercedes Knowle, the woman who had so obsessed her years earlier. At the home of Lee Adams – whom Caroline had met before the war with Michael, she finally encounters Mercedes, and discovers an unexpected bond with her, and begins to understand her own misinterpretations of the past.