My first read for Karen and Simon’s 1938 club was The Squire – which I have had sitting here for quite some time.
A short aside – I have now read three books for the 1938 club but the first week back to work after a two week break – when I’m still a little under the weather – and I feel like I have been hit by a train. Therefore I am struggling to write blog posts. I have absolutely loved the whole 1938 club thing – just as I loved the 1924 club – have loved seeing all the reviews popping up of the kind of books I love.
So anyway back to The Squire – a book which has more recently been re-issued by Persephone books, my edition however a nice original Virago green. Enid Bagnold – the author of four adult novels was also the author of the famous children’s story National Velvet. In this novel she celebrates childbirth and motherhood and the changing nature of a woman’s life – her prose is richly sensuous, languorous like the slow, contented movements of a woman heavy with child.
“The children seemed to cast their Precursors like shadows about the house, sometimes tangibly, in the sound of a voice, sometimes by suggestion, because it was striking the hour for their return from a walk, sometimes mysteriously, because inside the shell of their mother’s head the children were painted like angels on the roof of a chapel.”
A largely plotless novel – never a problem for me – it is a novel of astute observation nevertheless, with some brilliantly drawn child characters. To be honest I wasn’t certain how I would get on with this novel – I am very happily childless – on the face of it this was a novel that was likely to irritate me. However – I actually loved it – I loved it more as it went on, and it probably took me about forty pages to properly settle into it – but I actually surprised myself with how much I enjoyed The Squire.
The Squire of the title is the lady of the house – The Manor House on the village green, in her husband’s temporary absence abroad she becomes the squire. The household; which include the ageing butler Pratt, cook, a couple of maids, the squire’s four children and their Nurse await the imminent arrival of a new baby. The cook is not a great fan of new babies – and takes the opportunity to leave – so the squire hurriedly looks for a replacement – a decision needing to be made quickly. Pratt the butler is a world weary old retainer; he views his temporary squire with irritation, which he is too self-serving to allow to show. Pratt dreads the new cook – he’s seen all this kind of thing before.
“There was the squire in there interviewing the temporaries. Venomous adders of temporaries. There were two more that he had just let in, sitting now in the hall. Before God his life was a black one, he thought carefully hanging his coat on the hook on the pantry door. He had learnt his beautiful trade for nothing. It was the end of service, the outside last limit. These strange, modern creatures were edging away from everything he understood. The garden light streamed in at the pantry window, and Pratt felt all the savagery of the man who is nearing sixty and has always been on the wrong lines.”
A cheerful window cleaner calls, two maids plan to go to a local dance, and the life of the people of The Manor House continue as the mother to be ponders the life of the ‘unborn.’ Her four boisterous children, constantly demand attention, squabbles erupt between members of the downstairs staff and the squire bears it all with calm equanimity. We see the squire relaxing in her garden; we see her love and appetite for food.
The midwife who has attended the squire on four previous occasions – arrives, met with genuine affection off the bus, the two women come together almost as old friends. The midwife settles into the room prepared for her, and the squire can relax – her baby may now be born safely at any moment. They discuss motherhood and birth – as one professional to another – the Squire is relaxed, the relationship between these two women one of intimate respect and deep understanding.
Across the road, a contrast to the squire, lives Caroline, she tells the squire all about her latest lover, her restless pursuit of adventures as she contemplates going abroad again. The squire’s mood is entirely opposite, but she reflects upon her own youth, how once she had enjoyed fun and frivolity but how now she is entirely caught up with the life of her family. The squire attempts to describe childbirth to her friend:-
“ ‘Pain is but a branch of sensation. Perhaps child-birth turns into pain only when it is resisted? I’m aching, I’m restless, I can’t tell you now. But there comes a time, after the first pains have passed, when you swim down a silver river running like a torrent, with the convulsive, corkscrew movements of a great fish, threshing from its neck to its tail. And if you can marry the movements, go with them, turn like a screw in the river and swim on, then the pain … then I believe the pain … becomes a flame which doesn’t burn you.’
‘Awful!’ said Caroline, shuddering. “
The Squire feels like a pretty brave book for 1938 – Bagnold’s portrait of motherhood is that which existed within a particular class of course – that doesn’t make it any the less true. Naturally a woman in her forties expecting her fifth child lower down the social scale would possibly tell a rather different story – and yet many of her preoccupations may have been similar.
So a child (I’m not telling which kind) is born and after which the midwife remains in the house for the usual number of days. On the day appointed the midwife hands the baby over to Nurse – and goes on her way – her job done, and done well.