Monthly Archives: October 2017

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

First published in 1956, Tea at Four O’Clock is a brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. It is the first of Janet McNeill’s novels that I have read, but on the strength of this I will definitely be seeking out more of her work – particularly her final novel, The Small Widow, which is still in print.

Tea at Four O’Clock centres on Laura, the youngest daughter and middle child of the Percival family. We first meet Laura – now a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over the Percival residence, Marathon, in spite of her recent death.

Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone. (p. 8)

Over the course of many years, any sense of joy or liberty had been systematically sucked out of Laura’s life, first by her puritanical father – long since deceased – and latterly by the tyrannical Mildred whose exacting standards governed the daily routine at Marathon. (The book’s title refers to Mildred’s insistence that afternoon tea should be served by Laura at precisely four o’clock – no sooner, and certainly no later.) Having nursed Mildred through the long illness that led to her death, Laura is now somewhat shell-shocked at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. She has known virtually no other life, the demands of Marathon and Mildred having dominated her day-to-day existence for so many years.

Laura’s current situation is further complicated by the presence of three seemingly well-meaning individuals, each one armed with their own particular motives for wanting to get close to her as the new owner of Marathon and sole beneficiary of Mildred’s will.

First, there is the pushy Miss Parks, Mildred’s old schoolteacher and recently rediscovered ‘friend’. For some years, Miss Parks had enjoyed the prestige of keeping house for her bachelor brother, a local clergyman, only to be dislodged from this position on her brother’s marriage to a usurper. In search of a new cause to champion, Miss Parks was only too willing to push herself forward at the time of Mildred’s illness. By doing so, she saw an opportunity to further her own position, worming her way back into Mildred’s affections and the Percival family home to boot. While her stay at Marathon was initially intended to be a temporary measure, to help support Mildred in the final weeks of her illness, Miss Parks is showing no signs of leaving now that her charge has passed away. If anything, this formidable woman is striving even harder to make herself indispensable to the household, taking charge of day-to-day matters whenever the opportunity arises. It will suit her proposes very well if Laura remains fragile and in need of careful management and direction, for who would be better placed to provide such a service than Miss Parks herself?

Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so. (p. 68)

Then there is George, Laura and Mildred’s younger brother, banished from the family home by his father some twenty years earlier, who reappears at Marathon on the afternoon of Mildred’s funeral. Following his dismissal from the Percivals’ linen business for being reckless with his father’s money, George managed to carve out a modest life for himself with his working-class, socially conscious wife, Amy, and their teenage daughter, Kathie. They live in a cramped, rundown house on the other side of the city where money is very tight. George still resents the fact that he has been excluded from the Percival family home for several years, first by his unforgiving father, and then by the domineering Mildred who made him feel small and inadequate when he called on her for some money at the time of Amy’s pregnancy. Now he has designs on Marathon itself. By getting close to Laura again, George hopes to be able to move back to the Percival residence, this time with Amy and Kathie in tow. However, to achieve this, he must get the better of the calculating Miss Parks in the battle for Laura’s trust and affection.

Even the Percival family’s longstanding lawyer and close confidant, Mr McAlister, seems to have his eye on Laura. At first, it would appear that he is out to protect his charge, primarily from the detrimental influences of the bossy Miss Parks and the equally unscrupulous George; but it soon becomes clear that McAlister has a motive of his own, a more personal reason for trying to distance Laura from these predatory influences.

To have any hope of moving forward, Laura finds that she must delve back into her past. Over the course of this short novel, she is forced to come to terms with a period of her life she has long since buried: a series of circumstances that had led to her stay at Marathon at a time when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within her reach. Slowly but surely, McNeill reveals through a series of flashbacks the tragedy of Laura’s past, the incidents and circumstances that have blighted her life, making her the anxious, downtrodden woman she is today. There was a time when Laura was happy, the two years she spent at art college where she fell in love with Tom, a fellow student and friend of George’s. In this scene, Laura is watching Tom as he sketches the landscape during a day trip to the lakeside.

Laura did not take out her sketching book. She lay on one elbow, contented in the sufficiency of the moment, in the luxury of knowing that just by turning her head she could see Tom beside her, feeling the sun warm on her skin, hearing the waves., Here was richness. She hoarded every moment as it went by, each chaffinch’s flourish, each small lazy wave. It would have to last her a long time. (p. 111)

Laura’s memories of Tom are reignited when his son, also an artist, comes to the city to show his paintings, an exhibition which Laura attends.

Tea at Four O’Clock is a powerful, character-driven novel where the focus is on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous they might be. In this respect, it shares something with the work of other women writers of the mid-late 20th century, particularly Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. The mood is intense, claustrophobic and ominous – deliberately so, I think. The weight of guilt is ever present in the story from Mr Percival’s regret over the death of his wife when she gave birth to George, the son and potential heir he so desperately desired, to Laura’s guilt over past events, the nature of which is unravelled over the course of the narrative. Without wishing to say too much about the ending, there is a secret at the heart of the novel, one which reveals the true extent of Mildred’s hold over Laura for the past twenty years. It is the reason I described the book as desperately sad in the opening paragraph of this post.

McNeill also finds time to make reference to the changing nature of Northern Ireland in the fifties: the proliferation of new housing estates encroaching on the grounds surrounding the Percival mansion; the slim pickings available at home for ordinary men like George; the swathes of people emigrating to America, the land of hope and opportunity.

At the end of the day though, this is Laura’s story. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to typify her state of mind.

The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side. (p. 176)

My sincere thanks to Mary at Goodreads who recommended this book to me.

Tea at Four O’Clock is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata is perhaps best known for Snow Country, the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy city-based man and an innocent young geisha who lives in a remote area by the mountains. It is a work of great poetic beauty and subtlety – and yet there is something strange and elusive about this novella, a quality that makes it hard to pin down. The same could be said of The Sound of the Mountain, written in the early fifties and translated into English in 1970. Once again, I find myself being drawn into a world that feels so different from my own, delicately conveyed like the brushstrokes of a watercolour painting.

The novel focuses on Ogata Shingo, a sixty-two-year old man who lives with his wife, Yasuko, in the city of Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. After thirty years, any feelings of love or passion have long since disappeared from the couple’s marriage, leaving Shingo preoccupied with a number of things – mostly concerns about his family, the inexorable march of time and his failing memory. There is a sense that life is gradually slipping away from Shingo; the world around him is changing and not necessarily for the better. In this scene, he has just been struggling to do up his tie.

Why should he suddenly this morning have forgotten a process he had repeated every morning through the forty years of his office career? His hands should have moved automatically. He should have been able to tie his tie without even thinking.

It seemed to Shingo that he faced a collapse, a loss of self. (p. 195)

Shingo is at an age where several of his contemporaries are succumbing to various illnesses, some of which end in death –  a strong sense of loss pervades throughout the novel. Moreover, there are times, especially at night, when Shingo is visited by the sound of the mountain, a distant rumble that seems to suggest that his own passing might not be too far away.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain. (p. 4)

Also living with Shingo and Yasuko are their wayward, unsympathetic son, Shuichi and his long-suffering wife, Kikuko, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who represents the main source of brightness in Shingo’s life. In short, she reminds Shingo of Yasuko’s sister, the long-lost love of his youth who died before he decided to get married.

Kikuko was for him a window looking out of a gloomy house. His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. (p. 25)

Even though he has only been married to Kikuko few years, Shuichi already has a mistress, Kinu, whom he visits after work, frequently leaving Shingo to travel home alone from the Tokyo office where the two men are based. Like Shingo himself, Kikuko also feels rather lonely and isolated in her life. In the absence her husband, she enjoys Shingo’s company, helping him to unwind on his return from the city. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual about Shingo’s relationship with Kikuko; for the most part, it seems more a case of mutual respect coupled with a deep sense of empathy. In other words, their attraction is predominantly spiritual rather than physical. Nevertheless, there are occasions when Shingo’s fondness for his daughter-in-law starts to raise questions in his mind.

There was an undercurrent running through his life the abnormality that made Shingo, drawn to Yasuko’s sister, marry Yasuko, a year his senior, upon the sister’s death; was it exacerbated by Kikuko? (p. 78)

Yasuko, for her part, is more forthright than Shingo, and she urges her husband to tackle Shuichi head-on over his affair and subsequent neglect of Kikuko. Furthermore, Yasuko believes her husband to be soft, particularly in his favouritism for Shuichi over their other child, Fusako. Shingo, however, has a tendency to procrastinate over familial relationships, preferring instead to avoid any unnecessary conflict. That’s not to say that he doesn’t feel guilty about his lack of intervention here – in fact, he feels it very deeply – but in spite of this, he allows the situation to fester.

This same sense of procrastination also characterises Shingo’s relationship with his rather disagreeable daughter, Fusako, who has recently come back to the Ogata family home following the breakdown of her own marriage. Moreover, Fusako has two young children in tow: a petulant toddler who clearly takes after her mother, and a more placid baby who spends most of her time asleep. Once again, guilt-ridden passivity is the order of the day as Shingo opts to let matters run their natural course.

He knew that as her father he should step forward to give Fusako advice; but she was thirty and married, and matters are not simple for fathers in such cases. It would not be easy to accommodate a woman with two children. A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course. (p. 25)

Kawabata paints a very nuanced portrait of Shingo here, a man troubled by the tensions and difficulties in the relationships that surround him, especially those in the modern world of post-war Japan. One feels great sympathy for this individual in spite of the inherent flaws and shortcomings in his character – after all, we are all human with our own particular weaknesses and failings. Central to the novel is the question of how much responsibility a parent should take for the happiness of his or her children, particularly where their marriages are concerned. As the consequences of complications in Shuichi’s and Fusako’s respective marriages unfold, Shingo finds himself haunted by a sense of guilt. While he tries to do the right thing, especially for Kikuko and Shuichi, a number of unanswered questions continue to prey on his mind.

How many times would Kikuko, now in her early twenties, have to forgive Shuichi before she had lived with him to the ages of Shingo and Yasuko? Would there be no limit to her forgiving?

A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi. Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? (p. 96)

All in all, this is a beautiful, delicate novel laced with a sense of longing for the past, a time when human relations and emotions seemed more straightforward, certainly as far as Shingo is concerned. In several respects, I was reminded of The Gate by Natsume Söseki, a story of urban angst in early 20th-century Japan which I wrote about last year.  At first sight, The Sound of the Mountain might seem a relatively uneventful story of an ordinary Japanese family trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, there is a lot going on here; we just have to tune in to the author’s rhythm to see it.

The book also contains some lovely writing on the natural world. A majestic display of sunflowers in neighbouring gardens; a flock of buntings taking flight; the sight of fresh buds on a Gingko tree – all of these things represent moments of beauty and simplicity in Shingo’s life.

For more reviews of Japanese literature, see Dolce Bellezza’s event which is running to the end of the year.

The Sound of the Mountain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym began writing Some Tame Gazelle back in 1934 when she was just twenty-one, an impressive feat considering that the novel’s main protagonists – Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet – are both in their fifties. The characters are loosely based on Barbara herself and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, she imagines what their lives might be like in another thirty years, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet little village in the countryside. In this early novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by unassuming gentlewomen, impressionable young curates, slightly fusty academics, and one or two more spiky characters – often women. This is a world where the most pressing concerns are what to serve the Archdeacon and other notable guests at supper and what to wear to the forthcoming church fete. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

The novel’s set-up is fairly straightforward yet rather delightful. Belinda and Harriet Bede are both spinsters in their fifties, living together in a quintessentially English village at some point in the 1930s or ‘40s. Their lives revolve around the day-to-day business of the community, most notably those activities connected with the church.

Belinda has been in love with the Archdeacon Hoccleve for the past thirty years, a man she first met and dated in college where they enjoyed a mutual appreciation of the English poets; but now that the Archdeacon is married to the formidable and efficient Agatha, Belinda must remain content with worshiping him from a safe distance, fantasising over whether he still retains some affection for her after all these years. On the other hand, Belinda’s sister Harriet is more preoccupied with the sequence of curates – all young, pale and undernourished – who pass through the parish on a regular basis. She lavishes her attention on them, inviting them for supper and afternoon tea whenever the opportunity arises – this in spite of the fact that she has received several proposals of marriage from the charming Count Bianco, a somewhat melancholy Italian gentleman who remains faithfully devoted to her in spite of a string of gentle refusals over the years.

In short, both sisters take comfort from having someone to cherish – which brings us to the novel’s title, a quote from a verse by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (p. 11)

On the surface, very little appears to happen plot-wise in the first third of this novel, but as ever with Barbara Pym, the devil is in the detail. The characterisation is spot-on, often deeper and more subtle than it appears at first sight.

Belinda is the main focus here, and in some ways, she is almost a forerunner to Mildred, the central protagonist in Pym’s follow-on novel Excellent Women. Belinda is a hugely sympathetic but slightly meek woman who often puts the needs of others before her own desires. Guided by the social conventions of the day, she is forever conscious of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing, especially when in the company of others. Nevertheless, deep down, Belinda longs for a slightly more fulfilling life, one where she could share a few more moments with the Archdeacon, if only Agatha were not in the way. I love this next quote, one that conveys so much about Belinda as a character – and Pym as a writer, concerned as she is with the little details that reveal so much about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life.

When we grow older we lack the fine courage of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken. Then Agatha might get to hear of it; that was something else to be considered. Her long, thin fingers might pick at it critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some difficultly there. Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, but she would have an unfailing eye for Belinda’s little mistakes. And then the pullover might be too small, or the neck opening too tight, so that he wouldn’t be able to get his heard through it. Belinda went hot and cold, imagining her humiliation. She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s. And yet, in a way, it would be better if Harriet didn’t know about it, she might so easily blurt out something…Obviously the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted… (pp. 78-79)

By contrast, Harriet is much more flamboyant and outgoing than her sister, her personality coming through loud and clear in this next quote on her choice of outfit – Mr Donne, the new curate, has just arrived at the Bede’s for dinner.

Fortunately at this moment, for the conversational going was heavy, a firm step was heard on the stairs and Harriet came into the room, radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body. The background was the green of the jungle, the blossoms were crimson and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in fat a Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to supper. (p. 6)

The Archdeacon too is another delight, a rather pompous man prone to quoting lines from obscure poems and works of literature in his sermons, much to the bemusement of most of his parishioners. A bit of a martyr at heart, the Archdeacon is forever complaining about the amount of work he has to do in his job, despite the assistance of his curate and the little coterie of diligent church helpers. Heaven knows what Belinda actually sees in him, but there must be something there – perhaps it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity, akin to the attachment to a favourite pair of slippers?

Pym is also very astute when it comes to observing the small slights in life, those casual little put-downs that can have an impact on a person’s feelings, especially someone as sensitive as Belinda. In this scene, Belinda is wo-manning the vegetable stall at the church garden party. With only newspapers at her disposal, she has chosen The Times as the most suitable wrapping for Lady Clara’s marrows, a decision which is soon overturned when Agatha Hoccleve appears on the scene.

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh well…’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so. (pp. 29-30)

Belinda dislikes Agatha but feels rather guilty and ashamed of herself for doing so. After all, everyone has their individual flaws and shortcomings, even Belinda herself.

Then, just as we think that nothing of any consequence will happen in this sleepy community, a sequence of events come together to unsettle the lives of the Bede sisters. Firstly, Agatha goes away on her own for as few weeks to enjoy the waters at a European spa, leaving the way clear for Belinda to see a little more of the Archdeacon on his own should she so wish. Then Nicholas Parnell, a University Librarian and old friend of Belinda’s, arrives in the village with his assistant, the dashing Mr Mold – a bit of a ladies’ man by all accounts – a development that puts Harriet in a bit of a spin. And finally, a Bishop from Africa, who turns out to be a former curate of the parish, comes to visit the Archdeacon, a trip that results in surprising developments for more than one lady in the village.

By the end of this charming, beautifully observed novel, a number of marriage proposals will have been issued, but how many (if any at all) will have been accepted? After all, as one of the Bede sisters reflects on her personal situation, ‘who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale urate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?’ Who indeed.

Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago Books; personal copy.