A Summer Bird-Cage – Margaret Drabble
I’ve enjoyed some of Drabble’s novels, so I decided to check out her first one, which was written when she was twenty-three. The enthusiasm of an author with an assured future is evident (her family was well-established in Britain’s cultural hierarchy, she had her English degree from Oxford, and her older sister is the novelist A.S. Byatt). She displays talent: her prose is smooth and clear, and the voice of the first-person narrator is engaging. Sarah is recently graduated from Oxford, she has a boring job with the BBC, her love interest is in America. She goes to parties where bright young things engage in bright young chatter, and she has conflicts and moods, but it’s all unsubstantial. The person Drabble turns to for a plot is Sarah’s older sister, the glamorous, self-assured and aloof Louise. The novel opens with Louise’s marriage to Stephen. Sarah can’t fathom what her sister sees in this pedantic bore; yet, because the sisters were never close, she’s merely an uninformed bystander. In a long chapter called “The Information,” which comes after the halfway point in the book, she has dinner with a friend and gets the whole scoop (their dialogue begins after they have minestrone and continues without a break for fifteen pages, which made me wonder when they had a chance to chew their food). Anyway, it seems that Louise is having an affair with a handsome and virile actor named John (who was Stephen’s best man at the wedding); this is causing unstable Stephen great pain. We find out where all this leads in the last chapter, called “The Collision.” Stephen catches Louise and John enjoying a bath together; Louise, who relates the scene to her sister (the only instance of semi-intimacy between the two), is very upset at how monstrously Stephen acts; he even kicks her out of the house. Can you imagine that? Louise, we must assume, is the most obtuse mortal walking the face of the earth. The novel ends with more news about her: she’s living with John, who wants to marry her, but she . . . Oh, who cares, it’s all silly and illogical, with no point in sight. This is a tyro effort. The older and wiser Drabble won’t create characters who have labels pinned on them (glamorous, virile, unstable) and she won’t base her plot entirely on secondhand accounts. Lastly, she won’t give someone the moniker of Sappho Hinchcliffe (you know, the actress).
The Spanish Farm – R. H. Mottram
This is a war novel in which war is relegated to the background. It’s set mostly in Flanders, some twenty kilometers behind the trenches. The troops who occupy the town are English (later Australian), and they abide by French law as to what they can and cannot do; they pay for their lodging and the food they eat. There are no battle scenes and no atrocities are committed, though the fact of war is made to seem both atrocious and a colossal waste. What we get is primarily a character study of Madeleine. This young woman’s purpose in life is to make her father’s farm profitable; she doesn’t care about anything else (except love). She’s somewhat hard-hearted; only once does she shed tears. She’s tenacious, and she uses her practical intelligence to get what she wants. Her beauty comes from the health and strength of her body; she’s like a splendid animal. She’s competent, unimaginative, possessive, calculating and proud. That’s Madeleine, and the plainness of the prose, its ordered simplicity, is unwaveringly in accord with what she is. Besides managing the farm and dealing with troops, her major preoccupation is the Baron’s son. Georges had taken her as if it was his right to take the daughter of his father’s gamekeeper. She was quite willing: “Careful, even grudging, when she gave she gave generously, no half measures.” But her giving is devoid of any romantic notions; instead there’s a maternal aspect to her sensuality. When the war breaks out Georges goes off to fight; in an effort to see him, she conspires to be sent to Paris, where she works in a government office. Before briefly reuniting with Georges she has an affair with an English lieutenant. Skene needs her, and she responds to that; but they have nothing in common. She considers him to be her good child, but her “spoiled, imperious one was what she needed.” The novel closes with the war over and Madeleine back at the farm. Only ghosts remain: Georges dead, both of her brothers dead, her father an apparition. She accesses her losses with bitterness, and then turns stoically to the work at hand. How (and why) could Mottram capture so completely the sensibilities of Madeleine? I felt there must be some connection between the two. A bit of research revealed that the author served in France from 1914 to 1918. I’m convinced that Mottram was Lieutenant Skene. Skene is the only other character whose mind we’re in; he knew Madeleine at the farm; later he spent a week with her at a hotel in Paris (a respite from the “obliteration of his individuality in the dark mud of Flemish trenches”); she had given her body to him as one bestows a gift. When Skene stops by the farm after the war Mottram has her think that he “was just one of the things the War, the cursed War, had brought on her, and now it, and they, were going. Good riddance.” But Mottram couldn’t rid her from his thoughts and emotions. Thus this deeply felt and artfully executed novel. It’s the first of a trilogy. I have absolutely no desire to read more. I’ll leave Madeleine forever as she is at the end of this book.