Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca West’

The Harsh voice is a collection of four short novels (four long short stories is probably more accurate) that each deal with corrupting influence of money and hate. The title coming from a poem by Richard Wynne Errington.

“Speaks the harsh voice

We hear when money talks, or hate,

Then comes the softest answer.”

First published in 1935 the stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

Life Sentence concerns both the corruption of money and the hate and misery that can come out of an unsuitable marriage. Corrie Dickson is a good natured young man when he marries his fiancé Josephine against his better judgement. Corrie had somewhat half-heartedly tried to break off the engagement, not counting on the iron will of the sweet little girl he was engaged to. Josie never really forgives him for what Corries later refers to as his attack of cold feet. Corries’s uncertainty on the eve of their wedding overshadows their whole marriage – and in time he begins to see his wife as two people, Josie the soft, lovable girl he fell in love with and Josephine an unforgiving, ambitious woman chasing money. She has become a strident, accusatory woman, who is about a lot more than mere motherhood or marriage.

“And as he knelt by the bed where she had cast herself, and whispered to her that he could not bear it if she would not turn her head that way, that something grew colder still and said, in time to his heartbeat. ‘This is a life sentence, this is a life sentence.’”

Josephine represents a new breed of American woman that was emerging during this period, confident businesswomen taking their place alongside men.

There is no conversation opens in Paris, Etienne de Sevenac a vain French aristocrat who prides himself on his youthful looks and success with women, relates to an unnamed friend how he fell foul of American businesswoman; Nancy Sarle. Etienne has lost – or is about to lose – everything. He’s never worked, relying on his inheritance to fund the lifestyle he enjoys so much. Etienne’s listener (we find out more about her later) is fascinated by Nancy Sarle. She travels to America, infiltrating the very society that will, eventually bring her face to face with this infamously, powerful businesswoman.

This story is particularly strong, it explores the nature of hate and revenge and more importantly the misconceptions between people. Nancy and Etienne are so different to one another – their concerns and experiences such that each was completely incapable of understanding the other. Rebecca West’s characterisation here – as in all four of these pieces is brilliant – the voices of her characters authentic and believably of the times.

The Salt of the Earth is the only story in this collection set in England, it would be hard to pick a favourite piece in The Harsh Voice, but this one might slightly have the edge for me. In this piece West introduces us to another wonderfully monstrous character in Alice Pemberton. Alice is the salt of the earth, an Englishwoman who likes to help everyone around her – her mother, her siblings, their spouses and children – she just wants to ensure they don’t continue to make the mistakes she sees them making. However, her help is destructive, she appears to be utterly unaware of the effect she has. Alice’s husband sees it all though, and so when Alice returns from a visit to her mother, he tries to talk to her about it.

Alice has been ill, and when she leaves her mother’s house to return home, her mother is so relieved to be rid of her, she can’t hide it – and no one at home is pleased to see her. Alice approaches home, thinking she will catch the servants out – but her mother has called ahead – knowing what would lie in store for the poor servants if anything is out of place.

“Of course the servants adored her. Well, so they might. She knew she had an almost perfect manner with subordinates, and she really took trouble over training them and thinking out devices for ridding them of their little faults. She would never need to part with her servants, if it was not for the curious vein of madness running through all women of that class, which invariably came out sooner or later in some wild attack of causeless rage.”

The reader suspects, what Alice’s fate will be, the clues are there from the start – but that just makes the story all the more compelling. West builds the suspense wonderfully in this story, and it was probably that along with its very Englishness which made me love it as much as I did.

The final story in this quartet is The Abiding Vision, a story about the destructive power of money, but also a story about love. Sam Hartley is a self-made man, he has risen from rough beginnings in Butte, Montana to Park Avenue in New York. His wife Lulah has been by his side throughout, but now as Sam has reached his peak of success in middle age, his beloved, kindly Lulah is looking and feeling her age. Sam takes a mistress, a chorus girl named Lily. For Lily, in the beginning at least, their arrangement is a business deal – and for Sam, still committed to his evenings with Lulah, and taking care of her, it’s exactly what he wants. Years pass, and Lulah becomes ill, and Sam is hit hard by the Wall Street crash.

These stories are brilliant, compulsively readable, portraying the America of the 1920s particularly well. One thing that troubled me; Rebecca West puts some rather unpleasant Antisemitism into the mouths and thoughts of a few of her characters. Thoughts prevalent at the time no doubt, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something West was portraying as being authentic of these types of people at this time, or whether in it we see something of her own attitudes. I tend to assume the former.

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this real night

As many of you will know, August is All Virago/All August over on the Librarything Virago group. I can’t manage to commit to just reading Virago all of August but I love the excuse to read some of my Virago volumes.

This Real Night is the second book in Rebecca West’s Aubrey family trilogy; A Saga of the Century (there are editions which publish all three books together). The trilogy begins with The Fountain Overflows . I read that wonderful book back at the end of February while I was on holiday with friends in Iceland, I hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long before catching up with these characters again. This Real Night and Cousin Rosamond were published in the 1980s following Rebecca West’s death, from the manuscripts that she left behind. The third book I know is unfinished – and while part of me does still want to read it – I can’t get excited about an unfinished novel.

This Real Night starts a few years after the events of The Fountain Overflows, we find ourselves in the 1900s, in those days before the First World War so changed the world for a generation of young people. Cornelia, Mary and our narrator Rose are now grown up, they discover a freedom to being grown up, happy to throw of the bonds of childhood.

“A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride.”

In the wake of Piers Aubrey’s disappearance, the family fortunes have improved. Clare has a good grip on the purse strings for the first time ever, and the family enjoy the friendship and support of Mr Morpurgo, their father’s friend. The sisters’ beloved younger brother Richard Quin is still at school, he too growing up fast – and considering Oxford in the not too distant future. Cornelia, following the devastation of having to accept that she doesn’t possess the fine musical ability of her mother and two sisters, has become an art dealer’s assistant. Mary and Rose are at music college, desperately trying for artistic perfection.

“Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven.”

Cordelia marries early – and everyone seems to think it for the best. Cordelia is the odd one out in the family, she is rather spikey and can be difficult, though it is sad that she always seems to fall foul of her mother and sisters. Cousin Rosamond decides to train as a nurse, striding out towards independence she remains close to the Aubreys and is especially adored by everyone’s favourite Richard Quin. Rose and Mary begins to notice a little change in Cordelia after her marriage – although their relationship remains strained.

“Our enemy had gone away, had not just left our house, but had vanished. Someone whom, it often seemed, we did not love enough.”

One of the things the Aubrey siblings still enjoy more than anything is their visits to Aunt Lily, who they first knew as children, when her sister was convicted of the murder of her husband. Lily’s daughter was a school friend of Mary and Rose, and although she now lives with her dead father’s family (who prevent her from seeing Aunt Lily) the Aubrey’s retain their old affection for the unfortunate woman. Lily works in The Dog and Duck a small inn on the Thames, taken in by her old friends Aunt Milly and Uncle Len. It is a rough, colourful environment – quite at odds with their more genteel, artistic upbringing, but Mary and Rose particularly love their visits. Here they are exposed to all kinds of new experiences. I love this collection of characters, who Rebecca West portrays realistically but with affection, resisting I felt, the trap of caricature that some writers of a certain class have been known to fall into.

As the world descends into war, change comes to the Aubrey household, there is probably an inevitability to the ending – and Rebecca West’s depiction is delicately poignant.

If I am honest, I think, that The Fountain Overflows is a rather better novel, although I enjoyed this enormously – a chance to meet again familiar old friends. This Real Night probably could be read as a standalone novel but if you did, you would miss an enormous treat.

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“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.


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