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.