First published in 1956, The King of a Rainy Country was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the book itself is divided into three fairly distinct parts, each one focussing on a different phase in the story.
As the novel opens, Susan is moving in with Neale in his flat in central London. At first it seems natural to assume that Susan and Neale are girlfriend and boyfriend, but in reality their connection is a little more ambiguous. Maybe they’re just friends; maybe they’re still getting to know one another. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it’s a relatively relaxed one. Although they sleep in the same bed, sex doesn’t seem to feature here.
We lent each other money without keeping account; we spoke of what we could afford; sometimes we discussed a house we would own. Our relationship was verbal: allusive and entangled. Deviating further and further into obliquity we often lost track. “I don’t think I think you know what I mean.” “We’d better say it openly.” “Much better. But I’m not going to be the first to say it.” “Neither am I.”
Between confidence and the luxury of giving up we veered, straddled or fell. Sometimes Neale warned me to expect nothing of him. At other times it was he who accused me of not trying. […]
We were pleased at being coupled as you two, but also afraid lest, in the unspokenness of our understanding, neither of us really understood. (p.9)
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their bohemian lifestyle, Susan and Neale have very little money to spare. Neale spends his nights washing dishes in one of the local restaurants while Susan takes dictation for a bookseller, a rather dodgy individual by the name of Finkelheim who just happens to be based in one of the houses directly opposite the pair’s flat. One of the joys of this novel is Brophy’s wit, a skill that is plainly evident in her creation of Finkelheim, a man who has assumed a Jewish name as he believes it will be better for business. ‘That way nobody will expect any easy terms from you. You won’t get asked any favours.’ Here’s a brief flavour of the dynamic between Susan and her employer.
Confined together, Finkelheim and I were bound to observe one another and to think what we saw important. We kneaded our relationship for a day or two, and then it took shape: small, lumpish, putty-coloured but reassuring because defined; it created the atmosphere the place lacked. The leer he had given me at our first interview grew into a game. He would say:
“You still sharing with a friend?”
“You let me know when the friend moves out.”
However, I felt perfectly safe. The game could not grow beyond a certain intensity for lack of material. (pp. 20-21)
It soon becomes clear to Susan that Finkelheim makes his money by peddling pornographic material; the other more respectable books are merely a sideline for the sake of appearances.
One day, when Finkelheim is out, Susan notices a familiar face while leafing through one of the racier titles, The Lady Revealed. The nude in question is Cynthia Bewly, an old friend and teenage crush from school. When Susan spots her former classmate, the memories of her schooldays come rushing back. At the time, Susan idolised Cynthia – and it seems those feelings were reciprocated too, at least to a certain extent…
Cynthia shewed me ways of swerving out of my course into hers. I took up art: and this meant that in free lessons Cynthia and I would draw from the life — from a girl in a gym tunic posed on a desk — while Annette worked at fancy lettering in another part of the studio. I discovered for myself that if I slipped into the wrong queue at dinner time I could sit next to Cynthia. I would watch her profile: I felt unable to eat. Presently this became her feeling too. We would each crumble a slice of bread, each worked on by asceticism. (p. 62)
Filled with a sense of curiosity about Cynthia, Susan is eager to reconnect with her old friend and schoolgirl crush. Neale too is intrigued by the mystery surrounding this girl from Susan’s past, so much so that the pair set about trying to trace Cynthia to see how her life has turned out. If nothing else, the very fact that she is featured in The Lady Revealed is all rather fascinating.
After various attempts to find Cynthia by calling every Bewly in the phone book, Susan manages to find a lead on her friend by way of another acquaintance from school. It would appear that Cynthia, now an aspiring actress, is on her way to Venice for a film convention in the hope of securing a role in a future production. In one of several fortuitous coincidences in this novel, Neale and Susan just happen to find jobs as tour guides accompanying a coach party of tourists across Italy, a lucky break considering their lack of funds to finance a trip to Venice on their own. So before they know it, the two youngsters are on their way to the continent with the aim of arriving in the city just as the film festival is taking place.
In the second phase of the novel, we follow Susan and Neale as they travel to Nice to pick up their tour. What follows is a very witty interlude as the pair do their best to cope with the various demands of the visitors, a rather eclectic bunch of American tourists of all shapes and sizes. Neale performs splendidly, making up much his commentary on the local places of interest as he goes along. There are some wonderfully comic scenes here, somewhat reminiscent of a Barbara Pym novel. One lady traveller is fixated on the number 13 to the extent that she will only sit in seat 13 or sleep in room 13 – a subsequent mix-up with one of the hotel bookings for room 31 causes much frenetic activity along the way. Susan for her part attracts the attention of an admirer, an older chap named Gottlieb Wagner. It all makes for tremendous fun.
The tone changes somewhat in the final section of the story when Susan and Neale finally arrive in Venice, a shift which reflects the serene nature of their surroundings. By way of another lucky coincidence, the couple bump into Cynthia at her hotel and arrange to meet up again the next day when they will have more time to chat. At this point they are introduced to Cynthia’s friends, the statuesque opera singer, Helena Buchan, and her amiable companion, Philip. As this section of the novel unfolds, the various allegiances and relationships between different members of the group start to develop in unexpected ways. To say anything more about this element of the story might spoil it, so I’ll leave it there; save to say that the ending is rather poignant, a combination of new beginnings for some while other threads are drawn to a close. It’s all handled with great delicacy and care.
This is a really lovely novel, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity; nothing is quite how it appears at first sight. Brophy’s story captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. In many ways, the opening and closing sections reminded me of Olivia Manning’s wonderful book, The Doves of Venus, another semi-autobiographical novel with a similar feel, also published in the mid-1950s.
At the heart of The King of a Rainy Country is the search for the ideal, the one place, one person or one moment so imbued with meaning that it makes everything in life worthwhile. I’ll finish with a short passage that hints at this idea.
“…I want there to be one place, one person, perhaps even one moment. I suppose like most of one’s instincts it will have to go unsatisfied.” Later he asked: “Could there ever be one moment so supreme that everything would be justified for evermore?”
“I believe so.”
“All romantics believe so.” (p. 139)
The King of a Rainy Country is published by The Coelacanth Press.