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Posts Tagged ‘E Arnot Robertson’

The first time I heard of E. Arnot Robertson was several years ago when I acquired a copy of her novel Four Frightened People (1931) – which I read in March 2015. It’s a book many people don’t really like – and while I did like it, it made me fairly uncomfortable in places – it is of its time, I suppose, but that isn’t always palatable now. Ordinary Families is a very different book, none of the things that made me and other readers so uncomfortable in her earlier novel are present. E. Arnot Robertson was a very popular novelist during the 1930s and 40s, publishing eight novels, I would venture to suggest however, that she isn’t very well known today.

Ordinary Families is a coming of age novel – though one firmly rooted in the Suffolk marshes, a place Robertson knew well – unlike that jungle of her earlier novel. Our narrator is Lallie, one of four children of the eccentric Rush family. They live in the sailing village of Pin Mill on the Suffolk marshes – where all things boating, bird watching and inter-family rivalries dominate their days. The Rush children have all been brought up to understand the Rush family sense of humour and a sense of fair play, encouraged to fend for themselves from quite early on.

“I do definitely remember, though, stretching my ankles ecstatically to straining point as I knelt, resting back on my heels, so that the spongy ground should make long black stripes of dampness, like those on the beech-boles just behind us, all the way down the front of my brown stockings, and not only patches on the knees and toes. This was luxury: no other children, we had gathered, were encouraged to get as wet as we were – who else would have been allowed to play in February on the marsh by the river? – Certainly none of our friends.”

The Rush father is quite a character, an impossibly handsome former adventurer, who once crawled across the mountains in Chile and nearly starved on an expedition to Greenland. Now his sense of fair play is such – that during a regatta race he handicaps each of his four children, to give the neighbours a chance – only all his children win. Accusing his son Ronald of cowardice when he suggests pulling out of a race because his boat is unseaworthy Rush snr damages their relationship forever.

Lallie is the third of the Rush children – living in the shadow of her very beautiful younger sister Margaret. Lallie is considered ‘Brainy’ only this isn’t really a compliment, she is a keen observer of the natural world – the descriptions of which are particularly lovely, spending hours by herself in the marshes and along the estuary where she lives. As she grows up, Lallie turns her observant eye on the people around her, her family, and the neighbours in Pin Mill. There are times when she both loves and hates her ‘ordinary family.’

“Religion went bad in mother. It was just her luck to lose her faith when her children were growing independent of her and she needed it, after it had coerced her into bearing six children in her early married life, when she would rather have remained father’s gay out-of-doors companion – the girl he married and sometimes seemed vaguely disappointed that he had lost, in this devoted nurse to his children. If religion had to leave her stranded sometime, why could it not have done so before, when she would have found compensations? But unlike Mrs Cottrell, who dressed well, talked well, kept house well and drew well, all with one hand as it were, mother was a bad manager. Mrs Cottrell might be late for everything social, but she would never be late for spiritually, like this.”

Their biggest rivals locally, are the intellectual Cottrells – when the Cottrells hold a glitzy party – and don’t invite the Rush family, the relationship between the two families breaks down completley.

The novel spans at least ten years – during which time Lallie grows from a young girl into a young woman. She and Margaret spend eighteen months at a finishing school in Belgium – although the time is rather glossed over. The family are amused when Lallie starts writing letters to the Times about wonders of the natural world she has observed – but Lallie is very much her own person, and goes her own way, remaining very much attached to the natural world around her. Already rather over-awed by her sister’s beauty Lallie is rather shocked at Margaret’s casual attitude to sex – Lallie is sexually aware herself though, drawn to one particular man – who she decides to hold out for, no matter what.

I have lots of unread old green Viragos on my shelves – and what I love about them, is that I’m not always sure what I will get. There is always a few surprises in exploring these novels that have perhaps fallen out of fashion, and are little talked about now – the Rush family were wonderfully eccentric and made for excellent companions while I was reading this. After my first unusual experience with E Arnot Robertson in 2015, I was very pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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