Writers in covers: H E Bates

I’ve posted a few H E Bates covers before, but just to say again, I’ve no idea why he isn’t more appreciated these days. My own feeling is that he was too prolific and easily able to turn his hand to many genres, and much of his work was eclipsed by the Darling Buds of May. That’s a great shame, because his best work is incredibly bittersweet and melancholy in a warm, Septemberish kind of way.

Perhaps the titles here fit more into the prolific, career writer category, though of course Fair Stood the Wind for France has been incredibly popular: his output during, or drawing on, World War Two fairly cornered the market, from reminiscences of a fighter pilot to celebrations of rural life that were as much a part of capturing a country’s essence as the Recording Britain artists’ project.

Again the artwork moves from the late fifties to the early seventies. The Poacher gets the inevitable lusty Panther paperback treatment. (There was certainly a slight frisson of erotica in the way his work was sometimes portrayed, as if it brushed up against Henry Miller, and as proof I remember my grandma allegedly complaining that one of his books ‘had smut in it’.)

The Fabulous Mrs V is a perfect early Seventies ode to Martini-style sophistication. Mrs V appears to be wearing tennis whites, but if you look closer it’s actually far less practical and indeed one of Margo Leadbetter’s party dresses, and she has as much connection to the racket as an artefact from an alien spaceship.

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Writers in covers: D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence in Penguin paperbacks

The jury is out these days on D H Lawrence, and yet he was as much a part of the Swinging Sixties as Mary Quant or Christine Keeler, and it’s quite entertaining to see them in the same sentence. Rightly so it would seem, as there are those who think the trial over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover kickstarted the sexual revolution of the coming decade.

There’s no doubt he chimed with the sixties’ moves towards liberation and would presumably have found an ideal home in the beardy and basic drawings of Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex. And Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ naked wrestling in the 1968 film of Women in Love put him again in the front line of changing attitudes. Thinking he was able to write about a woman’s feelings was his downfall, but it can’t be denied he was ahead of his time, and even if a little barking mad, had a genuine, fully realised moment, which the Penguin paperbacks here reflect.

Sons and Lovers and The Virgin and the Gypsy were also filmed, the photographic stills above using an idealised ‘natural’ beauty so prevalent for book covers around 1970, just a step ahead of a shampoo advert. The illustrated versions are by Yvonne Gilbert (who gained a little more fame in the eighties for her racier work for the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which you might guess from The Prussian Officer) and date from the late 1970s.

The move from an advertiser’s style of photography to illustration is interesting here… before it, in the early sixties, stylised artwork was prevalent, and after it, almost hyper-real illustration gave way to the use of imagery chosen with Merchant Ivory-style attention to period detail in the eighties.

My favourite is The Trespasser, for the lovely typography (excepting the full stops) and what they do with the W, and the enigmatic, half-shadowed figure in a full summer’s meadow.

Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic

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.

Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

I hear you’ve been going out a great deal,” said Lady Waters, with that air with which lesser women prefix: ‘A little bird told me’ – but her confidante would have been an eagle.

From To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, 1932

To the North 1

The wood engraving is by Joan Hassall (I think).

This is one of the touches that make Elizabeth Bowen really enjoyable. Although she experiments with form, it’s the natural result of efforts to capture nuance. She’s quite willing to dip swiftly down to earth with an honest quip like this… there’s no desire to set the gentle reader adrift in a pond of preciousness and self-regard.

Of writers with a heyday in the twenties and thirties, I put Virginia Woolf at one end and Stella Gibbons at the other. I imagine this as a little like the treble and bass dial on an old stereo, and with a little balancing at the centre you’ll get Elizabeth Bowen.

I don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference in the ability to observe in either Woolf or Gibbons, though of course the presentation differs, and perhaps Woolf was observing herself a little more. (Woolf famously dismissed Gibbons’ literary prize for Cold Comfort Farm with ‘Who is she? What is this book?’.) My enthusiasm for Stella Gibbons is not based on Cold Comfort Farm, good as it is, but the other novels such as Westwood, Nightingale Wood and The Bachelor. There’s a lightness and modernity, a spirit decades ahead of the 1930s. A cool intelligence wants to escape mundanity, but it will not countenance the smugness and complacency of those who might think that they’re not.

Westwood Gibbons

Vintage have reissued most of Stella Gibbons’ novels, and this illustration is by Pep Montserrat for the recent reissue of Westwood.

There’s a scene in Bowen’s To the North, where the office secretary finally turns on her employer, that could be one of Gibbons’ finer moments:

“She stared at the fatal letter from Malaga, her mind recording a quite superficial astonishment: one had not expected Tripp to go off like this. What had one expected? Little – punctuality, bridling diligence, the impassable patronage of the educated young female towards employers who had respectively failed at the wrong university and attended none. She had been cheap, she wrote the King’s English, absented herself at teatime, and did not sniff… But all this time in Miss Tripp the juices of an unduly prolonged adolescence had violently been fermenting: now with a pop they shot out the cork from the bottle. The effect on Tripp, certainly, did not appear catastrophic: the bottle remained intact. Tripp’s outline (at which Emmeline stole a look) was once more placid, as though some natural process had reached conclusion. Doubtless she felt much better.”

But these moments are the light sparkling on a dark river. Bowen’s skill is in never placing us at the heart of one perspective – she writes with a hand-held camera thrown from character to character, most of them adrift. We’re carried along in the chatter of familiar comforts but it’s a sly deception, for the destination is cold and distant: dislocation.

Alexandria Quartet: a lion in the family

Durrell

I think some people discover Lawrence Durrell having read My Family and Other Animals when small… and so can’t quite forget the satirical portrait by his brother. Interesting that My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956, just before Lawrence (below, centre) produced his best work and secured the literary world’s respect and recognition.

Durrell family

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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…

Post-war wilderness, 1950

The World My Wilderness

A view of St Paul’s through wasteland, cover artwork published in 1950 for Rose Macaulay’s story of a girl who is sent to live in London after years in occupied France (jacket design by Barbara Jones). I’ve yet to read it. The inside wrap reads:

“London and the ordered formality of English life seemed to her after the wild maquis society of France more than strange, repellent even, a totally unintelligible confusion. She was bewildered, not merely by the ordinary rules of what is called civilised life, but also by the ambiguity of her personal relationships within that framework… the only escape from it she found in a real but fantastic world which she created for herself in the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, which became her physical and spiritual home.”

Here’s an image from 2013.

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