Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic

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Followers of WhistlesintheWind will know that Jane Eyre and Rebecca have come up a few times in posts, usually exploring the gothic allure of rambling houses – the kind that are as much a character as the inhabitants themselves. They are both fascinating, now intertwined novels, and one actress lived both in the 1940s.

Rebecca 1940 a2

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock from Daphne du Maurier’s novel

As a child in the 1970s and into the 1980s, sunday afternoons in winter often found one of the great ‘old’ black and white movies on our TV screens. It was here that a big part of my imagination was forged, leading me to later spend hours immersed in epic Victorian novels and their later successors, joining the characters as candles flickered in stone-built hallways, along oak bannisters, or where lanterns gleamed in winter light over mist-hung moors or ragged coasts.

Jane Eyre (1944)

Joan Fontaine, who died this week, played both Jane Eyre alongside Orson Welles and the second Mrs de Winter with Laurence Olivier. Both films remain classics today; Hitchcock’s Rebecca will never be matched, and the 1944 version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel still has great power (and is also faithful to its setting – I can’t ever forget the Yorkshire scolding from Grace Poole as Jane explores the attics: ‘What art tha doin’ up ‘ere – get thee dahn!’).

Fontaine’s performances are restrained, nuanced, yet charismatic, and have carried the films along through the decades. So WhistlesintheWind here salutes her, missionary of gothic, 1917-2013.

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Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

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Random Harvest, James Hilton

From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:

“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.

Hilton also created the story and the film Mrs Miniver from Jan Struther’s diaries, which along with Went the Day Well is a classic wartime morale-booster.

Road Through the Woods, Pamela Frankau

Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.

The Distant Horns of Summer, H E Bates

And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…

Brave new dystopia

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Brave New World Finn Dean

Here’s a superb image from Finn Dean, the winner of this year’s Book Illustration Competition. His designs will be published as The Folio Society’s edition of Brave New World in September.

It’s fascinating to look at the future from the thirties and forties, and see how emotional detachment is a key feature. While Brave New World and 1984 are always in the searchlight, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome is overlooked. I found it a year or two ago on a Waterstone’s ‘staff recommend’ shelf, and it’s great – particularly interesting as a vision of the future in a rural setting. The back cover quotes a Guardian review which describes ‘a horrified and darkly comic response to the appeal of totalitarianism, a mixture of Orwellian satire, rural sentimentality and Kafkaesque nightmare’… I note that ‘rural’ equates with ‘sentimentality’ again.

It’s a really distinctive book: the insight and observation is shot with a mixture of League of Gentlemen humour (as in Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) and soap opera which makes its unsettling hold only stronger. The BBC adapted The Aerodrome in the early 1980s with Peter Firth, but the Monty Python-ish interpretation made too much light of the dark.

Aerodrome Rex Warner

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

Whistler in the wind

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There is much more recognition of Rex Whistler these days, but his brother Laurence has also left behind some amazing work. Here are two windows – inscribed on glass with scriber and drill – from St Nicholas Church, Moreton, Dorset.

Summer, Laurence Whistler

Detail of the Seasons window, with butterflies about to burst from the bubble

The church was hit by a German bomber in World War II, and rebuilt with the windows engraved or deep cut, acid-etched or sandblasted by Laurence Whistler with craftsmen where necessary. These images (with a little adjustment) are reproduced from the guide book and are originally from Scenes and Signs on Glass from the Cupid Press, Woodbridge.

The Trinity Chapel window, Laurence Whistler

Trinity Chapel window, 1982

The Trinity Chapel window is a tribute to a pilot shot down in the Battle of France in 1940, and genuinely stunning. Sunlight and rain reveal nature regenerating, with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral near to where the pilot was stationed, and his cottage home. Vapour trails are suspended and in the corner is a broken propeller bearing two sets of initials and the dates of the pilot’s brief marriage.

I can’t help thinking this would have been quite a personal and possibly a difficult project. In his book Initials in the Heart, Laurence Whistler records the happiness of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and the cottage in Devon they shared. She died in 1944 at just 28. It was the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in the war.

Laurence Whistler, Jill Furse, 1941

Laurence Whistler and Jill Furse, with family, Devon, 1941, from Initials in the Heart, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964

I’ve collected quite a few of Laurence Whistler’s books of poems and his biographies of his brother. The diligence with which he kept memory alive is incredibly moving, and I think he is an excellent, insightful writer.

More of that another day…