“You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.”
The Fountain Overflows is possibly one of Rebecca West’s most famous works – the first novel in a projected trilogy – the third of the trilogy not quite finished when Rebecca West died. The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund complete the trilogy and both these novels were published posthumously, – and while I am not keen on unfinished works – I do now very much want to read them both.
The story is that of an Edwardian family in the years before the First World War. Our narrator is Rose, one of three sisters, there is also a younger much adored brother Richard Quinn. As the novel opens the family have recently returned to Britain from South Africa, where we get the impression that things didn’t quite work out – the children’s father Piers Aubrey had run into difficulties. Now the children and their mother are to spend a few weeks on a farm in Scotland, having given notice on their flat in Edinburgh – they intend to follow Mr Aubrey to London as he starts a new job on a newspaper. There is a certain amount of anxiety about money, and whether Mr Aubrey’s job will work out – all of which the children – the three girls at least, are well aware of. Mrs Aubrey, Clare is a former concert pianist, and she spends much of her time giving her daughters musical instruction. It appears that Mary and Rose will follow in their mother’s footsteps, while the elder sister Cordelia, playing violin rather than piano – appears to lack a true musical gift.
Piers Aubrey is very much adored by his children, at least at this early period, though there is a sense that he is unreliable. Despite his obvious talents, he uses what little money the family has to speculate on other ventures, losing money and exposing his family constantly to the risk of absolute penury and the shame of debt. A fighter of causes too, he is loved and always forgiven by his family despite his frequent failures. London seems almost a dream, and there is more anxiety about the arrangements when Mrs Aubrey doesn’t hear from her husband for several weeks. The day arrives however, when letter or no letter, they must start the journey to London, hoping there is a house for them waiting at the other end.
“I cannot remember what I saw that afternoon, because I saw it too often afterwards. But here the road came to an end, running to a wrought iron gateway, flanked by pillars on which two gryphons supported coats-of-arms, and set in a high brick wall. The gates were blind, backed with tarred boards, and this might have been frightening, but reassured, it proclaimed that everybody had gone, the place was private. On the right was a neat terrace of a dozen houses. Just before the gateway, on our left, was our new house. A neat plaque on its first floor gave the figures ‘1810’ and it had the graces of its time.”
Once in London, the children find themselves taking up residence in house their father used to once stay in as a child when visiting an aunt. The family are renting the house from a cousin of their father’s and in time the three young sisters can’t help but worry about the lateness of the rent due to Cousin Ralph.
Mrs Aubrey is a worn out, dishevelled woman, there are moments when her daughters – as much as they love her – feel a little embarrassed by her. They hate being poor – and long for the day when they can be concert pianists and earn money for their family. Yet the children are fortunate at least in their mother – she is no fool – she’s intelligent, a gifted musician, caring and clear sighted she holds her family together. Living close by is Constance, Clare Aubrey’s cousin, she lives in a different kind of neighbourhood, and West allows us to understand that while the Aubrey’s are far from well off they live in a much better, more desirable location. Clare and Rose visit Constance and her daughter Rosamond – dispensing with a poltergeist (as you do) – but are rather taken aback at the sight of the street they find Constance living in.
“Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called ‘common’. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other, and, what was especially degrading, ‘made face,’ as well as well as not having baths every day. We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.”
Constance is married to another unreliable man, and Rosamond, Rose and Mary often swap notes on their hopeless fathers.
The story of this engaging family is slow to get going but the Aubrey family grew on me, they are very engaging, and Rose is superb teller of their story. The story of the next few years in this house in London is packed with incident. Cordelia is taken under the wing of Miss Beevor – who encourages the pupil she adores to play the violin in public, allowing the poor girl to believe herself to be possessed of a greater talent than she has. Cordelia is desperate to rid herself of the poverty her father has reduced them to – and her ambition is fuelled. Her mother wants only to help Cordelia realise her error – and they enter into that age-old battle, so familiar to mothers and daughter everywhere.
Soon the family are thrust into a drama of another kind entirely – the Aubreys find themselves drawn into a scandalous murder case, when the mother of a school friend of Rose and Mary is put on trial for the murder of her husband.
West’s writing is lovely, the warmth of this family contrasts brilliantly with the struggles and moments of despair inflicted upon them. Clare Aubrey emerges as the family saviour – and is the character I admired the most.