Published in the year before her death No Signposts in the Sea is perhaps Vita Sackville West’s most haunting novel. Written at a time when Vita was suffering from the (still undiagnosed) cancer that would end her life, it was also her last.
Vita and her husband; Harold Nicolson and their friend Edie Lamont – to whom the novel is dedicated, set sail on a cruise of the West Indies and South America in 1959. Vita and Harold had enjoyed cruise life before, yet on this last, sad voyage Vita began writing No Signposts… a novel about dying, unrequited love and how life should be grabbed at with both hands. The novel feels beautifully intimate, bound up as it is life, love, death and travel.
The novel is also shot through with extracts of poetry, reflecting the thoughts of the central characters Edmund and Laura. There is a delicate, elegiac quality to the narrative – which I really enjoyed. I can only assume that Vita was (on some level at least) aware that she perhaps – like Edmund in her story – would not be around for long.
“I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”
During a week when I felt increasingly hopeless and helpless I felt very much like sailing away on a calm sea, this book felt like perfect reading. I picked it up for the Librarything Virago Group’s author of the month – which in January is Vita Sackville West. Although I enjoyed this little novel enormously, there were a couple of moments when I was brought up sharply – almost back to the mad reality of 2017, with – what was for me – some unexpected, racially offensive attitudes. I know to expect it of novels from the 1930s and 40s – I read a lot of books from that period, stupidly I had not expected the same in a novel from 1961. It was naïve of me, I suppose. Still, the 1960s were still a different time, I understand that, and VSW of a very different class, that shows too, but none of this was enough to prevent me from enjoying this novel.
The story is told by Edmund Carr, the novel is his journal, discovered after his eventual death. We know from the beginning that Edmund is on borrowed time.
Fifty-year old Edmund Carr is an eminent journalist, who came from humble beginnings, and now counts members of an entirely different social class among his friends. One of those friends is Laura Drysdale, an attractive widow of forty. Edmund nurses a secret tenderness for Laura, and so when his doctor tells him he has just a few months to live, Edmund decides to spend his last weeks with Laura. Laura has booked herself passage on a cruise ship. Edmund hurriedly leaves his job in Fleet Street, and books passage on the same ship.
Delighting in having the sun on his face, Edmund settles into a lovely on board routine, frequently in the company of Laura. Keeping both his illness and the truth of his feelings a secret, Edmund is content just to be in Laura’s company, terrified of ruining the relationship they already have by looking for more. He is unable, however to free himself of his feelings, now so much in the company of Laura they are, if anything strengthened.
“And sometimes I suddenly hear her voice. This is a queer experience. I know her voice so well in the ordinary way of things, and then suddenly and unexpectedly I hear it as though I had never heard it before. It may be only six words, of no especial significance. Thus, I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund my darling, I love you.
Love does play queer tricks,”
Together they watch the sunset from the deck, share dinner on a beautiful island, watch a magnificent lightning storm from Laura’s private balcony, all while observing their fellow cruisers with wry humour. Laura is presented as perhaps being a little unconventional – she discusses her views on marriage quite candidly and relates the touching story of a lesbian couple she knows. In these sections, we can presumably see, Vita’s own attitude to love and relationships.
Fellow passenger Colonel Dalrymple adds a little complication to Edmund’s contentedness. At first Edmund is happy with the colonel’s company, he, along with another passenger make up a four with Edmund and Laura, for bridge. In time, though Edmund imagines the Colonel has romantic interests of his own toward Laura, and his own jealous paranoia begins to threaten his enjoyment in Laura’s company. He watches the colonel, listens for footsteps between cabins at night, makes an uncharacteristically snide remark, and then worries that in doing so he has given himself away.
“Then come mysterious currents which rock the ship from below without much visible convulsion. Where do they come from, these secret arteries of the sea, tropical or polar? They are as inexplicable to me as the emotions which rock my own heart. I do not let them appear on the surface but am terribly aware of them beneath. Sometimes, churned by a gale, the waters grow angry and the blue expanse turns black and white, tossing us remorselessly, the waves crashing with a sound as of breaking biscuits, the rain hissing as it obliterates all vision, and again I draw the parallel between the elements and the surprising violence I have discovered in myself.”
Despite a couple of small jarring moments, this is a lovely, thought provoking novel – VSW re-creates her own love of cruising, her enjoyment becomes our own, the expanse of sea, the warmth of sun, a night-time, moon bathed deck, her writing is gloriously evocative.
Next month the librarything Virago group will be reading the work of Rebecca West – I have two (at least) VMC West novels tbr – so I may join in that too.