First published in 1956, The Fountain Overflows is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a long time – a wonderfully immersive depiction of childhood, inspired by West’s own family and early life. As Andrea Barrett explains in the introduction to the NYRB edition, West’s father, Charles Fairfield, was a brilliant political journalist, a compulsive gambler who conducted numerous affairs, culminating in his abandonment of the family in 1901. Fairfield’s wife, Isabella, assumed sole responsibility for raising the couple’s three daughters, one of whom was Rebecca or Cicily as she was known back then – her pen name of Rebecca West came later, in honour of a character from one of Ibsen’s plays.
Charles and Isabella are clearly the inspiration for two of the central characters in The Fountain Overflows: Piers Aubrey, the charming but irresponsible political pamphleteer, and his wife, Clare, a gifted pianist whose primary focus is to nurture the musical talents of her daughters – the twins, Rose and Mary, and their elder sister, Cordelia. Just like their mother, Rose and Mary are promising pianists, while Cordelia seems oblivious to the fact that she has no aptitude for the violin whatsoever, unable to distinguish good music from bad.
As the novel opens, Piers has just been appointed as the editor of a suburban newspaper based in London, prompting the family to relocate from Edinburgh, where they have been sub-letting their flat. The new job appears to be the latest in a sequence of false dawns for Piers – an earlier stint in South Africa did not quite work out – and his tendency to gamble away any earnings on foolish investments is widely known. While Rose, the novel’s narrator, is still quite young, she seems fully aware of her father’s shortcomings, having learned to anticipate misfortune and to support her mother accordingly.
Papa was always happy when he was engaged in certain activities. Of these the one which gave him greatest pleasure was his lifelong wrestling match with money. He was infatuated with it though he could not get on good terms with it. He felt towards it as a man of his type might have felt towards a gipsy mistress, he loved it and hated it, he wanted hugely to possess it and then drove it away, so that he nearly perished of his need for it. (p. 61)
Despite the family’s lack of financial resources, Rose enjoys a relatively happy and loving childhood, surrounded as she is by her sisters, her delightful younger brother, Richard Quin, and her cousin / close confidante, Rosamond. Rosamond’s mother, Constance, is married to Clare’s cousin, Jock, another unreliable father with scant regard for his familial duties. Constance and Clare are great friends, their relationship stretching back to childhood, broadly akin to the bond that begins to develop between their daughters, Rosamond and Rose.
While this is not a plot-driven novel as such, we are treated to a glorious sequence of incidents, all of which come together to form a vivid picture of life in the Aubrey household, complete with its various ups and downs. There’s a little bit of everything here: family Christmases brightened by homemade dresses and toys; debt collectors knocking at the front door while Piers slips out the back; and Cordelia hopelessly scraping away at the violin, misguidedly encouraged by one of her teachers, the eccentric Miss Beevor. Unfortunately, Miss Beevor is convinced that Cordelia is a musical genius, a belief that strengthens Cordelia’s determination to perform in public, much to her family’s dismay.
Murder, poltergeists and political lobbying also play their parts in the story, lending the narrative a wonderfully immersive yet unpredictable air. And yet, despite the lack of structure in the girls’ life, there is an overriding sense of optimism that everything will turn out okay in the end, irrespective of the Aubreys’ shortcomings.
I felt sure, of course, that in the end we would be all right. Mary and I never doubted that we would we would be all right. But we would have to have a framework in which to be all right, and about that I was no longer certain. (pp. 166–167)
This is an absorbing, richly rewarding novel, full of jewel-like detail, from the sharply defined portraits of minor characters to the beautifully descriptive images on family life. In this passage, Rose is recounting the children’s efforts in procuring Christmas presents for their parents despite a lack of regular pocket money.
Mary had practised considerable deception over the money given her for milk and buns at eleven, and had gone to a junk shop we passed on our way to school and bought Papa a little eighteenth-century book about the sights of Paris with pretty coloured pictures and Mamma a water-colour of Capri, where she had spent a wonderful holiday when she was young. I had a painted a wooden box to hold big matches for Papa to keep in his study and had made a shopping bag for Mamma out of plaited straw. Richard Quin had given the matches to put in my match-box and to Mamma a bright pink cake of scented soap which he had chosen himself. (p. 82)
What’s also impressive here is the lightness of touch West brings to some of the broader themes in the novel – for example, her views on Europe and the various political developments that occurred during the 20th century. Rather than labouring the point on the foolishness of war, West introduces the topic in a very interesting way. When Piers is asked to write a pamphlet on Britain’s foreign policy and the future of Europe, the parliamentary group who commissioned the piece are extremely reluctant to publish it, viewing it as the ramblings of a madman who has taken leave of his senses. If only the politicians had more foresight and intelligence in these matters…perhaps those warnings on the dangers of a state-controlled society might not seem so crazy after all.
And he goes on to say the most extraordinary things about the wars we are going to have after the criminals have taken over. He says there will have to be wars, because when these criminals have wiped out all the resistance in their own countries they will need some other excuse for killing, and they will get it in war; and they will be pressed by economic need because once they had stolen all the wealth honest men had stored up in their countries, there would be nothing more being accumulated, honest men would be reluctant to go on working just to lay up loot for a criminal government, and they will be forced to make war to get at the wealth of other countries. Really, Mrs Aubrey, did you ever hear anything so extraordinary in your life? (pp. 327–328)
In summary, The Fountain Overflows is a beautifully written novel by one of Britain’s leading critics and writers, a wonderful evocation of family life that captures its inherent tensions with insight and elegance. There is genuine warmth, intelligence and compassion in this book, typified by the characters of Rose and Clare – the latter doing her best to protect the Aubreys from rack and ruin.
While West had originally intended the book to be the opening part of a trilogy, she remained somewhat unsatisfied with the two sequels, The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and chose not to publish them in her lifetime. Luckily both are now in print, published posthumously in the mid-1980s, and available for us to read.
Just checked my post on this novel (5 years ago!) & see you commented that you intended reading it. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Do you intend reading the sequels? Well worth the effort.
Yes, I hope to at some point. In fact, I’ve had an old green Virago of Cousin Rosamund for the longest time. Just need to find a decent copy of The Real Night as I don’t like the cover on the current Virago edition…
I’ve just looked West up; she was amazingly prolific. I read Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon in the ’90s to help me understand the wars in the Balkans. Very long but well worth reading. Very much like the sound of this one, too.
Oh, yes – I remember seeing something abut that book in the past. It’s based on a trip she took with her husband, IIRC? Just before the Second World War. I need to read Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (as a follow-on from the Balkans) before picking up any other books in this general area, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind. Thanks for the tip, Susan!
You’re welcome, Jacqui. It’s very enlightening but very, very long!
Oh Jacqui, this is one of my favourite books! I read many of Rebecca West’s novels back in the 1980s when Virago reprinted them, including The Fountain Overflows trilogy. It’s a magical read isn’t it – quite literally. I think of the scene when all the women are sitting in the kitchen and the unquiet spirit departs, manifested by the crock of salt slowly emptying on to the floor as they all watch in silence. It’s as though their combined female presence has triumphed.
It’s so evocative of London in winter; descriptions of wooden station platforms and the streets on low afternoons. I remember the girls looking at the washing hanging in backyards and gardens when they’re on a train, imagining that the pedestal mats are clothes for deformed people. And then there’s the aunt who plays the piano for the sisters giving a comical “Hoo!” (or similar) at the end of phrases. I wonder if Charles Aubrey had a form of Asperger’s. That brilliant mind tempered with irrational behaviour. A century ago it was undiagnosed but you suspect that the likes of the Bloomsbury set, who she was acquainted with, had something like that.
I’ve only recently been thinking of it and feeling it was high time I re-read it so your review was the necessary catalyst to do so – thank you! Thank you also for your recent review of Alice Thomas Ellis. Despite your reservations about that novel, her writing sounds appealing and, having never read anything by her, I intend to do so.
Oh, Philip, what a lovely comment! Your enthusiasm and love for this book (and the other two in the trilogy) just shine through. It definitely feels like a book that would yield even more on a second or third reading, doesn’t it? There’s so much richness and texture here…I guess that comes from the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, memories drawn from childhood and cherished times. As you say, West’s evocation of London is wonderful, very atmospheric without feeling cliched or overdone.
You may well be right about Charles…I don’t know enough about the signs or symptoms of Asperger’s to say, but he does sound somewhat eccentric / idiosyncratic. Parenting styles have changed so much since Rebecca West’s time, thank goodness!
I do hope you enjoy your re-read of Fountain (lovely to hear that my post has given you an extra nudge!), and I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Alice Thomas Ellis, too, should you get a chance to try her. She’s definitely worth checking out despite my reservations about a couple of aspects of 27th Kingdom. The Birds of the Air would be a great one to try if you happen to come across a copy.
Thanks so much Jacqui. Birds of the Air it is – after I’ve re-read Fountain. I’ve got the trilogy in the original Virago covers and they were so much nicer with their art work covers and dark green heading. It’s definitely worth sourcing a second-hand copy of Cousin Rosamund; it will make the enjoyment of it that much greater I’m sure!
Just ordered a second-hand copy from WoB!!
Lucky you! I shall have to see what I can find on the net, those old green Viragos are so beautiful to collect.
Fabulous, I really hope you enjoy it. :)
Hi Jacqui. I’ve just finished The Birds of the Air and, once again, have to thank you for introducing me to Alice Thomas Ellis. I didn’t realise she hailed from my home city of Liverpool and feel something of a large gap has been filled in my reading education.
It was achingly funny in parts given the way she described people and situations. Evelyn the painting neighbour who has graduated from painting by numbers to a cape and easel and now paints on the ‘flasher haunted downs’ and has presented Mrs Marsh with a view of the local asylum painted through the laburnums to Sebastian’s mistress, nicknamed The Thrush who ‘in the wider world wouldn’t have passed muster for the qualifying round of Miss Llandudno’ but was considered beautiful by university standards. Then, running throughout, is the bleak grief of Mary facing Christmas and the rest of her life without her son, Robin, which nobody seems to truly understand. Having read that A.T.E. lost two children and that this was written when she in her early forties, I wonder how much of Mary is herself.
I hope I can manage to read all her novels as she is unique. There was something of Elizabeth Taylor (one of our favourites) – the sly humorous observations of people and their ways and the melancholic lives of others. So thank you. I’m a fan of hers now.
How fabulous to read this lovely, comment, Philip! Thank you so much for taking the time to drop back with your thoughts, and I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed ‘The Birds…’ so much. Wonderful stuff! You’ve brought the novella rushing right back to me with your comments, especially your observations on the myriad of supporting characters, each with their own individual idiosyncrasies and peculiar ways of viewing the world.
That’s such a good point about the tragic loss in Alice Thomas Elllis’s own life – and I suspect you’re right about there being an element of Ellis in Mary, a character who feels so relatable and full of humanity. As you say, there’s a dash of Elizabeth Taylor there too, maybe in the characterisation and Ellis’s ability to elicit the reader’s sympathies for these figures, despite their flaws and failings. Lovely to hear that you’ll probably read more Ellis in the future – I’ll be fascinated to hear how you get on!
I’ve never read any Rebecca West but I might have to now I’ve discovered she is half-Scottish! It makes me wonder how Edinburgh is portrayed in the novel. Also some of her non-fiction sounds really interesting.
Haha! Yes, West’s mother was Scottish, and the family lived in Edinburgh for a while. Sadly though (for you at least), Edinburgh doesn’t feature very much in the novel as it begins with the family relocating to London for Piers’ new job. If you’re interested in trying something by her, I would highly The Return of the Soldier (which I reads years ago pre-blog). It’s very short but powerful. One of the first novels to depict a character with shell-shock and the subsequent impact of the trauma of war on a soldier’s family.
Firstly, congratulations and thank you for your wonderful website, which I have only recently discovered. And yes, I was going to suggest The Return of The Soldier when I noticed you had just mentioned it above. An underrated contribution to WWI fiction which portrays how some women experienced the war.
Thanks so much, Paul, that’s very kind of you to say, and I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts! The Return of the Soldier is terrific, isn’t it? So perceptive and compressed for such a slim book. As you say, I think it must have been quite groundbreaking in its day, highlighting the impact of PTSD (as it’s now called) on those returning from the war. Plus the impact on their families and loved ones, of course. It’s good to hear that you rate it so highly too.
Lovely review Jacqui, of what is obviously a marvellous book. I’ve only read a little West so far, but am a huge fan of her writing – it’s just so good, and she was an inspirational author. I totally agree with all the comments abour Return of the Soldier, and it’s astonishing that that was her first novel. I have this and several others in Virago editions so maybe now is the time to be digging them out!
I can’t quite believe that this is my first review of a Rebecca West as it feels as if I’ve been reading her for years. possibly because The Return of the Soldier has been lodged in my consciousness for some time. (A little like Wharton’s Ethan Frome.) I’d love to see a proper revival of her work. It’s her 130th anniversary this year, so maybe now’s the time to dust off your Viragos!
A most enjoyable review. I can’t believe I have read nothing by Rebecca West, although have read a biography. She had an interesting life. I will keep my eye out for an old Virago efition.
Thanks, Gert. The Return of the Soldier is excellent and very short. Well worth picking up if you happen to come across a copy. You’d knock it off in an afternoon, no sweat!
I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel. I absolutely loved it, I remember I was on holiday in Iceland when I read it. I still haven’t read the final unfinished novel Cousin Rosamond. Rebecca West is such an interesting writer I think, I loved the relationships between the women in this. Each of them with different talents or concerns.
I’m not surprised to hear that this a favourite of yours, Ali, as it feels right up your street. So many interesting, distinctive characters, so full of life and vitality despite the various challenges the family must face…
What did you think of the second book in the trilogy? Does it live up to the heights of this first one? I guess I’m wondering why NYRB doesn’t have the other two books in its list (unlike Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War series, which they’ve published in full).
The second book is The Real Night. I really liked it, but I think The Fountain overflows is the better novel. Definitely worth seeking out though.
Ah, great. Thanks, Ali. I’ll have to chase it down at some point, and it’s to know what to expect…
West has been vaguely on my radar since I first came across her (Diary of a Provincial Lady?) but I hadn’t gotten down to acquiring any books. This sounds an excellent read and great place to start. Glad this has been reprinted by NYRB.
Diary of a Provincial Lady was E. M. Delafield (who I often mix up with D. E. Stevenson due to the similarities in their names!), but she and West were writing in the same era. It’s a really excellent book with interesting, distinctive characters. The kind of novel you can sink into with a nostalgia for an earlier world.
I looked up my TBR list and the West that was mentioned in provincial lady turned out to be Harriet Hume. But I love the sound of this one so when I do get to her, I think this’ll be a great place to start
Ah, I see what you mean now! Sorry…Yes, you’re right, Harriet Hume definitely rings a bell. I can’t speak to that one as I haven’t read it, but The Fountain is wonderful, full of evocative scenes. A lovely read.
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You’ve really brought this back to me Jacqui! She does capture the tensions in the family so well. I read the Virago edition but I’d be interested to read the introduction in this NYRB edition.
Lovely to hear that, Madame Bibi! It’s such a vivid portrait of family life, like a world caught in a snow globe or a capsule in time. And how lovely that you have a Virago edition, especially if it’s a treasured green spine…