A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been working my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, slowly but surely over the last couple of years. Originally published in 1965, A Dedicated Man was her third collection of short fiction, and I think it’s my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. (You can read my posts about the first two here: Hester Lilly and The Blush.). As ever, Taylor demonstrates her skill in capturing people in their most private of moments. In short, we see individuals facing up to dashed dreams, social embarrassment and the realities of their marginalised lives.

As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The collection opens with Girl Reading, a poignant story of inadequacies and social embarrassment. Etta Salkeld, a young girl from a relatively poor background, enjoys staying with her well-to-do schoolfriend, Sarah Lippmann, during the holidays. The Lippmanns are a sociable, sophisticated bunch, their home full of activity with guests dropping in and out at various times of the day. Etta feels at home there, particularly as she longs to be part of a lively, comfortable family – one where she can observe other individuals at first hand, not just in books. Mrs Salkeld would like her daughter to invite Sarah to their house to return the Lippmans’ hospitality, but Etta is embarrassed by the shabbiness of the place and fears her friend would be bored – points that hit home to Mrs Salkeld when she finally gets to meet Mrs Lippmann in her rather grand surroundings. The contrast between the two women is very striking.

Etta, who had never seen her mother drinking sherry before, watched nervously, as if she might not know how to do it. Mrs Salkeld—remembering the flavour from Christmas mornings many years ago and—more faintly—from her mother’s party trifle—sipped cautiously. In an obscure way she was doing this for Etta’s sake. “It may speed her on her way,” thought Mrs Lippmann, playing idly with her charm bracelet, having run out of conversation. (p. 29)

The Thames Spread Out features Rose, a middle-aged woman who lives on her own in a house by the river. Every Friday, Rose receives a visit from her married lover, Gilbert, who stops off to see her on his way home to his wife. For the rest of the week, Rose must survive largely on the money that Gilbert leaves when he departs on Saturday mornings, treating herself to a few peppermint creams and other little indulgences when she can.

This Friday everything is different; the river has flooded, and the roads are impassable, leaving Rose trapped in the upstairs of her house, somewhat at the mercy of a couple of unfamiliar men who are staying next door. It is only once the water starts to recede that Rose realises the true emptiness of her life, especially when she compares it to that of her sister.

When it was dark she pinned the curtains together again and sat down at the table, simply staring in front of her; at the back of her mind, listening. In the warm living-room of her sister’s house, the children in dressing-gowns would be eating their supper by the fire; Roy, home from a football match, would be lying back in his chair. Their faces would be turned intently to the blue-white shifting screen of a television. (p. 61)

This is a quietly devasting story, the type of piece that Elizabeth Taylor does so well – and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end as Rose finally takes control of her life.

In A Dedicated Man, a pompous waiter, Silcox, and his dull but dependable colleague, Edith, have taken the opportunity to move positions from a shabby seaside B&B to a more refined hotel in the Home Counties. The need to masquerade as husband and wife seems a small sacrifice to make, particularly for the improvement in the pair’s standing. After a somewhat awkward period of adjustment to sharing a twin-bedded room, Silcox and Edith begin to settle into a rhythm, buoyed by their ambitions and desires to succeed. However, when Silcox invents a son to give the couple a more rounded family background, the tissue of lies begins to unravel, ultimately exposing him to ridicule and scandal. This is a powerful piece, a fitting lead story for the collection as a whole.

Holidays feature in several pieces in this collection, perhaps most notably In a Different Light. In this story, Barbara is visiting Jane, her recently widowed sister at her home in Greece. While there, Barbara forms an unlikely friendship with Roland, a young man holidaying on his own, his wife preferring to stay with her sister in Buxton. The relationship is all very chaste as Barbara and Roland settle into a rhythm of walks in the countryside and siestas in the afternoon. Before leaving the island, the pair exchange addresses, never thinking that they will actually meet up again; but in her restlessness back home, Barbara decides to invite Roland and his wife, Iris, for Sunday lunch, just to recapture something of the visit. When Iris arrives, she reveals herself to be loud and pushy, so much so that Barbara’s young children take an instant dislike to her. Roland, for his part, is a different person altogether, more formal and serious than he seemed in Greece. As Barbara reflects on the situation, she realises the true nature of Roland’s life with Iris, the stripping away of his verve and vitality.

These weeks, since his return from the island, must have been worse than hers, she realised—as the rest of his life would be worse, His experience must have been deeper, his brief escape desperately planned and wearily paid for. It was something for her—for Iris—to deride along with the other things. Once he had liked music, he had told Jane in answer to one of her off-hand enquiries; later the sisters had laughed about it, but Barbara could not have laughed now. She could see too clearly the history of discarded interests. (pp. 89-90)

In The Voices, Laura, a young woman recovering from an illness, is holidaying at a hotel in Athens; but instead of going on excursions to see the sights herself, Laura spends much of her time listening to the two women in the adjacent room as they discuss their own trips to various places of interest. In effect, Laura is living her holiday through the activities of these women, imagining how they look as they go about their days. This is another beautifully observed story with a glimmer of brightness at the end.

In the Sun also features individuals abroad, this time three English couples holidaying at the same characterless hotel in Morocco. This a story of petty snobberies and prejudices as the couples observe and gossip about one another – especially the Wallaces, the last of the three pairs to arrive. It’s also the most amusing piece in the collection, laced as it is with Taylor’s fabulously sharp wit.

No need to explain who Janice was. The Troughtons knew all about Janice, who was training to be a nurse. They knew about the hospital too—the matron, sisters, patients. Mrs Troughton thought she could find her way blindfold about it. […] She would also be quite at home in the other Crouch girl’s, Carol’s, office, and in their house in Guilford, with its frilled nylon curtains at seven-and-elevenpence a yard; its sun-lounge and bar—quilted plastic décor done by Mr Crouch…Leslie…Daddy…himself. (p. 192)

As the story draws to a close, there is a surprise revelation, one that leads the others to view the Wallaces in a somewhat different light, in spite of the fault lines in their unlikely marriage.

All in all, this is a superb collection of stories from Elizabeth Taylor. She portrays her characters in a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns, their petty foibles and failings.

A Dedicated Man is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Old Boys by William Trevor

Last year I read and loved The Boarding-House by William Trevor, a wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, first published in 1965. Ten months on, I’m returning to this writer for another of his early novels, The Old Boys, which came out the previous year in 1964. Like its successor, The Old Boys is a sharply observed ensemble piece featuring a cast of rather idiosyncratic characters – this time, the members of an Old Boys Association for an English public school. In short, the novel explores the longstanding beliefs and rivalries that resurface amongst the men (all in their seventies) when the committee comes to elect a new President. It is a marvellous novel, shot through with a particularly savage streak of humour and some poignancy too. Needless to say, I enjoyed it hugely.

The novel centres on Mr Jaraby, who is eager for the role of President of the Association. On the whole, life for Jaraby has been shaped by his days in the public school system, an environment where bullying and intimidation of the younger, weaker individuals were part and parcel of life. Inspired by Mr Dowse, his mentor and Housemaster, Jaraby spent much of his time at school persecuting his fag, a somewhat awkward young boy named Nox – an experience that Nox, another Old Boy, still remembers to this day.

In Nox’s new life Jaraby was everywhere. It was not the mere fact of receiving a gamma for a piece of English prose that distressed Nox; it was what Jaraby would say to him when Jaraby got to know about it. For somehow Jaraby always did seem to get to know. He knew everything that went on in the House and everything that concerned the boys who belonged to it. What Nox did, on the games field or in class, was inevitably ‘not good enough’. (p. 15)

In spite of the passing of time, Nox remains deeply resentful of his treatment by Jaraby, a point that fuels his determination to block Jaraby’s succession to the presidency, even if this results in the election of a less competent man. In short, Nox wishes to discredit Jaraby (there is some suggestion that the latter frequents brothels), so he hires a private detective, the appropriately names Swingler, to gather evidence of an incriminating nature.

He could not admit to Swingler that he cared little himself for the Association, that if a less able man than Jaraby were chosen it would not matter to him as long as Jaraby was shamed in the process. Some devil within him had urged him to get himself on to the committee, so that he might, by some chance that had not then been apparent, cook Jaraby’s goose. Jaraby was an influence in his life, but he could only confess it to himself. Jaraby was a ghost he had grown sick and tired of, which he could lay only by triumphing in some pettiness. (p. 43)

This all gives rise to some very amusing scenes, particularly when Nox decides to force the issue by tempting Jaraby with a little bait. Much to his annoyance, Jaraby finds himself being stalked by a strange, presumptuous woman who insists on joining him for tea and cakes (‘Shall we gorge ourselves on meringues today?’), all played out through Trevor’s pitch-perfect prose.

The punctilious Jaraby is also experiencing difficulties at home, particularly in relation to his wife, the rather forthright Mrs J. The Jarabys bicker and snipe at each other on a constant basis, mostly over their forty-year-old son, Basil, another former pupil at the school, who has turned out to be a great disappointment to his father. Mrs Jaraby, on the other hand, would like Basil, a rather dubious bird fancier, to come and live at their house, a point she continues to press with her husband at every opportunity.

While Basil has already had a few brushes with the law, Mrs J believes the worst is behind him, and she hopes to welcome her son back into the fold. Mr Jaraby, however, is having none of it, believing his wife to be of unsound mind and in need of psychiatric care. Perversely, it is Mr Jaraby, with his petty prejudices and obsessions, who would probably benefit the most from specialist attention, although both of the Jarabys have their flaws and failings.

Another source of tension in the Jaraby household is their cat, Monmouth – a savage creature loved by Mr J and loathed by his wife. If only Monmouth were not there, then Basil could return home complete with his budgerigars…

Alongside the themes of power, revenge and the resentments we hold on to in life, the novel also explores the nature of ageing, mainly through the portraits of other Old Boys on the Committee. There are touches of humour and poignancy here, a sprinkling of dark comedy alongside the tragedy and sadness.

Mr Cridley and Mr Sole spend their days cutting out newspaper coupons for freebies and no-obligation estimates, many of which they have absolutely no use for, living as they do at the Rimini Hotel. With its cheerless atmosphere and permanent smell of boiling meat, the Rimini (a glorified boarding house catering for the elderly) is presided over by Miss Burdock, a formidable, money-grabbing woman with a penchant for grey clothing. When it transpires that Mr Cridley and Mr Sole have arranged for a central heating salesman to assess the premises, Miss Burdock is most definitely not amused…

‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating. You can guess what I am going to say to you, both of you: if there is further trouble I shall be obliged to ask you to leave the Rimini.’

‘A genuine misunderstanding, Miss Burdock, a genuine error.’

‘I could easily fill your rooms. There is a waiting list for the Rimini.’ (pp. 50-51)

The poignancy comes through in the portrait of Mr Turtle, a gentle, lonely Old Boy who is finding it difficult to remember things, particularly in the short-term. In some ways, Mr Turtle would prefer to return to the simplicity of his schooldays, complete with its regular routines and rituals – a point that becomes apparent during the annual school visit for Old Boys’ Day.

A woman in a white overall broke in on his thoughts, pressing a plate of wafer biscuits on him. He sighed and smiled and took one. How nice it would be to hear a bell and run to its summons, to join a queue for milk or cocoa, and later to do prep and wait for another bell that meant the rowdy security of the dormitory. How nice it would be to slip, tired and a little homesick, between the cold sheets. He heard his name called. Somebody gave him a fresh cup of tea and asked him a question he did not understand. (p. 101)

As the narrative plays out, there are one or two shocks for the main players, the Jarabys in particular; but I had better not say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

The Old Boys is another excellent novel by William Trevor, sharing many similarities with The Boarding-House. Much of the book is written in dialogue, which gives the story a sense of immediacy, almost as if you are watching a play unfold before your eyes.

Although only touched on through memories, the realities of the public school environment are very well portrayed, complete with all their cruelties and insensitivities. It is a world where influence and power over others are all important, dictating the nature of life for the younger, less experienced boys. The only glimmer of hope for these individuals is to wait until they too gain senior status and all the authority this confers. It is clear that Nox was never able to acquire this kind of standing within the school, a point that has left him marked by Jaraby’s sadistic behaviour for most of his adult life.

As a novel, The Old Boys highlights the importance of our formative years, how the things we experience during this time continue to shape our lives well into adulthood. It can be hard to forget the injustices of our childhood, especially if they are never adequately redressed at the time. Trevor explores this theme through the novel with its striking blend of sharpness, dark humour and tragedy.

This is my contribution to Cathy and Niall’s Reading Ireland event which started yesterday. You can find out more about it here. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review here.

The Old Boys is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and OffshoreMany of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.

Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.

The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)

While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.

Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)

However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.

Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.

Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.

Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)

Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.

Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.

He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)

A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.

Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.

Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.

At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.

A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

First published in 1951, A Question of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s masterly twelve-part cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid-20th century. It’s been on my radar for quite a while, mostly due to conversations with MaxJonathan and Ali who have written about the books in some detail. The final push came towards the end of last year when the Backlisted team covered book ten in the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, on their Christmas podcast.

Having drawn a line under my three-year Classics Club project, I now have the headspace to read a long sequence of novels – hence my decision to begin the Dance. While I can’t promise to write about every book in the series, I will try to post some thoughts every now and again, just to capture a few observations. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on the first instalment, A Question of Upbringing.

As the novel opens, the narrator – a man named Jenkins – is observing the movements of some workmen in his street when he is reminded of Poussin’s great painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the Seasons move in rhythm to the notes of the lyre.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. (p. 2)

It’s a striking image, one that prompts Jenkins to think back to his youth, a time when so many things, hitherto unfathomable to him, were starting to become a little clearer.

Immediately we find ourselves back in the 1920s where Jenkins is in his final year of public school, destined to progress to a notable University, almost certainly Oxford. Most of his spare time is spent messing around with two companions, Stringham and Templer, whose temperaments, Jenkins observes, appear to represent two different facets of life in spite of their outward similarities. Stringham is something of a romantic and an eccentric, perhaps destined to play a somewhat different role from the one he truly desires. Templer, on the other hand, is more practical, valuing the tangible things in life, though he is not particularly ambitious.

The boys enjoy a feisty relationship with their punctilious housemaster, Le Bas, a situation which prompts Stringham to devise a devious joke at the tutor’s expense. The incident culminates in Le Bas being mistaken for a petty fraudster who is wanted by the police. Rather amusingly, Le Bas believes Templer to be the orchestrator of the prank, especially once the boy’s tobacco pouch is found near the scene of his arrest. It’s a very funny story, one that soon spreads around the network of boys as the episode becomes public.

While at school, Jenkins also encounters Widmerpool, a rather isolated, awkward boy who cuts a lonely figure marked by an air of greyness. A year or two older than the other boys, Widmerpool is destined to reappear in Jenkins’ orbit in the years to come.

Following these reflections on the boys’ schooldays, the novel then goes on to shadow Jenkins as he pays visits to Stringham’s home in London and the Templers’ residence near the sea. While staying with the Templers, Jenkins comes into contact with Sunny Farebrother, an amicable business associate of Templer senior. Farebrother also finds himself the butt of a joke when Templer’s brother-in-law, the rather objectionable Stripling, attempts to place a chamber pot in Farebrother’s hat box before the businessman’s departure. However, the plot is foiled when Farebrother surprises Stripling in the midst of enacting the trick.

When reading the novel, we view everything through Jenkins’ perspective, observing the movements of the other characters in relation to each another. It soon becomes clear that Jenkins is a little naïve, certainly more so than many of his peers. Nevertheless, there is a sense of him maturing as the novel progresses, a feeling that he is beginning to understand a little more about the business of life.

Clearly some complicated process of sorting-out was in progress among those who surrounded me: though only years later did I become aware how early such voluntary segregations begin to develop; and of how they continue throughout life. (p.69)

It is during his stay at the Templers that Jenkins first becomes aware of the possibilities that love might offer in the course of one’s existence – not just in terms of a physical attraction to someone, but a deeper, more emotional force too. This realisation is sparked by his observation of another of the Templers’ guests, the intoxicating Lady Reith. Although Jenkins is not seriously tempted by the prospect of Lady Reith, he does recognise her magnetism and power over the opposite sex. Instead, Jenkins considers himself to be in love with his schoolfriend’s sister, the somewhat remote Jean Templer.

Before heading off to university, Jenkins spends the summer in France, staying with a wartime friend of his father’s, Commandant Leroy. Also visiting the Leroys that summer is Widmerpool, who in spite of a little window dressing still retains much of the aura of the odd-boy-out from school.

Widmerpool had tidied himself up a little since leaving school, though there was still a kind of exotic drabness about his appearance that seemed to mark him out from the rest of mankind. […] His familiar air of uneasiness remained with him, and he still spoke as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth. He also retained his accusing manner, which seemed to suggest that he suspected people of trying to worm out of him important information which he was not, on the whole, prepared to divulge at so cheap a price as that offered. (p. 118)

There is something rather secretive and unpleasant about Widmerpool at this stage, a feeling that leaves me interested to see how his character evolves over time. Currently articled to a firm of solicitors, it is clear than Widmerpool believes himself to be destined for greater things – either in the way of business or politics or both.

Once again, there are some beautifully observed scenes in this section of the story, particularly the amusing tennis matches involving two somewhat idiosyncratic Scandinavians – one from Norway, the other from Sweden – who clearly dislike one another.

The final chapter of this novel sees Jenkins in his first year at University, attending Sunday afternoon tea parties hosted by the wily Sillery, an influential don whose primary aim is to uncover and exploit any connections that might be of use to him. Stringham is also studying at the same University, although his arrival is delayed by an accident which puts him out of circulation for several months. Unlike Jenkins, Stringham is unhappy at the college, and it is not long before he convinces his mother and stepfather to allow him to depart. Other young undergraduates float in and out of Jenkins’ orbit during this period, although the significance of these figures remains to be seen.

As the novel draws to a close, Jenkins parts company with Stringham, and there is a sense that a particular chapter in his life is coming to an end.

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period. This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. (p. 229)

It is observations like this that really stand out for me – Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) reflections on the nature of life alongside his wry asides. How relationships develop and then dissipate over time; how complex and powerful the business of love can be; how our personalities are often formed in the years of our youth, thereby setting the pattern for much of our lives. These are just some of the points that strike me on reading this book, but there are many more. Above all, it is not what you know, but who you know that seems most important here: a person’s social class and background; which school and college they went to; their network of influencers. These are the things that appear to matter most.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these individuals develop over time as they move in and out of one another’s lives. No doubt several new characters will be introduced as the Dance takes shape. I do hope we see Jenkins’ Uncle Giles again, a man whose liaisons with various members of the opposite sex are as dodgy and indiscriminate as his business dealings. I’ve run out of space to say any more about Giles in this piece, but maybe another time; he is a marvellous creation.

A Question of Upbringing is published by Arrow Books; personal copy.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Set in a small town in Michigan in the midst of a snowy winter, Vanish in an Instant (1952) is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the classic hardboiled style. Its author, Margaret Millar, was a Canadian-American crime writer, best known for her 1955 novel Beast in View, winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for best novel. If Vanish is anything to go by then that award was fully justified; it’s a very compelling mystery, full of twists and turns with plenty to keep the reader guessing right up to the very end.

As the novel opens, Mrs Hamilton, a wealthy and rather bossy matriarch, has just arrived in town accompanied by her paid companion, Alice Dwyer. Mrs Hamilton is on a mission, namely to do whatever it takes to get her daughter, Virginia, out of jail following her alleged involvement in the murder of a local married man, Claude Margolis. As far as the police are concerned, Virginia – Margolis’ mistress – is the prime suspect, especially as she was found wandering about near her lover’s cottage shortly after the stabbing.

However…Virginia was blind drunk at the time of the incident, and her recollections of the evening’s events are hazy at best. Even though she was discovered covered in blood, Virginia has no idea whether she actually killed Margolis or not – she may have done it, but she isn’t sure. Neither is Meecham, the bright lawyer Virginia’s husband, Paul, has hired to help.

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes. (p. 30)

To complicate matters further, a local man named Earl Loftus appears on the scene and confesses to committing the murder. On the surface, Loftus seems to have no apparent connections to Margolis, but his account of the crime is convincing enough to persuade the police of his involvement. Virginia is released and reunited with her family, leaving the police to tie up the case against the mysterious Loftus. Meecham, however, remains unconvinced of Loftus’ guilt, fearing that Mrs Hamilton has paid the loner to take the rap. As it turns out, Loftus is dying from leukaemia, so he has little to lose by standing in for the killer – quite the contrary in fact as his family would stand to gain financially from Mrs Hamilton’s payout.

As he continues to investigate Loftus and the various connections to the case, Meecham becomes increasingly convinced that things are not as clear-cut as they might appear. Inch by inch, the view widens to include other individuals connected to Loftus: namely his devoted landlady, Mrs Hearst, and her husband, Jim; his alcoholic mother, Clara Loftus, a genuinely tragic figure; and his ex-wife, Birdie, no longer on the scene. Each character is drawn with care and attention, from the major influencers to the seemingly peripheral players in the mix.

To reveal any more of the plot would almost certainly spoil some elements of the story, but suffice it to say that it remains suitably gripping and intriguing to the end. However, what really sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the character development, aided by the attention to detail Millar brings to this aspect of the novel. Very few of these individuals are as straightforward or as ‘black-and-white’ as they might seem on the surface; instead, their personalities are nuanced with shades of grey and degrees of ambiguity that reflect a degree of reality.

There’s a great deal of hard work and diligence in Meecham’s quest for the truth, qualities that reward his persistence in following up the loose ends. Millar also brings a strong sense of humanity to the lawyer’s character, an understanding of the harsh realities of life for some of the individuals involved. Moreover, there’s a lovely dynamic between Meecham and Alice Dwyer, Mrs Hamilton’s desirable young companion, almost reminiscent of a screwball comedy-romance at times, such is the nature of their pitch-perfect dialogue.

The small-town atmosphere is nicely captured too, adding a sense of unease and darkness to the story, somethings that help to reflect the ‘feel’ of the place.

In the summer the red bricks of the courthouse were covered with dirty ivy and in the winter with dirty snow. The building had been constructed on a large square in what was originally the center of town. But the town had moved westward, abandoned the courthouse like an ugly stepchild, leaving it in the east end to fend for itself among the furniture warehouses and service stations and beer-and-sandwich cafés. (p. 26)

In summary, this is a sharply plotted, absorbing mystery – ideal reading for the winter months.

He walked out the door and down the hall. He didn’t look back but he knew she was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of her neck, cold and painful as the touch of ice. (p. 222)

My thanks to John, who has been encouraging me to read this author for a while.

Final note: As some of you may know, Margaret Millar was married to Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries are amongst my favourite novels in the genre – I’ve written about some of them here.

Vanish in an Instant is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.