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.

Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

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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

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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

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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…

Post-war wilderness, 1950

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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.

Hemmed in 7

Shelagh Delaney, 1960

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Following on from the Billy Liar post and the theme of escape in the sixties, here’s playwright Shelagh Delaney talking about Salford in 1960. All of it is great, but from around 8.30 minutes in she starts to talk in particular about restlessness and the conflict of belonging/not belonging to a place. It’s again suggesting the ‘something more’ from Billy Liar’s and Liz’s discussion in the previous post.

Shelagh Delaney, Encore

It’s a great little film by Michael Winner for the BBC, and she seems to represent something wholly unaffected (or as much as you can be when being filmed) which is fairly rare then or now. ‘It’s presumptuous for me to talk about people like this, and to talk about the city like this,’ she says, ‘but the whole place is a curious, restless place… but right down at the bottom it’s secure as anything, like a rock… but for me living here is a peculiar thing… I couldn’t live here all my life, I’d be too restless.’

There’s such spirit that shines from her, even in just the opening scenes. Looking at other interview clips on YouTube, you can sense an undefinable wink in the eye at being put in situations where ‘something more’ just isn’t quite understood, whatever it might mean from one person to the next.

Mythic matriarchs and troubled twins – Penelope Farmer’s ‘Year King’ (1977)

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At the heart of Year King is landscape, an Exmoor landscape – and one that is earthy and real, powerful and unsentimental. It’s as much dour and wet as lush and verdant. People live and work as part of it; it’s not a place that is visited and admired – it’s a landscape utilised. Animals are hunted, earth is worked.

‘Year King’ was published in 1977 by Chatto and Windus. The first edition cover illustration here is by William Bird.

Year King rests on a framework of ‘the king of the year’. There are many aspects to this ancient folklore – fertilised by James Frazer with The Golden Bough, branching into the neo-paganism of the early 20th century, adapted by many, and examined objectively in recent years by Ronald Hutton.

It explains death and renewal over the year – in winter, the land is barren; in spring, it grows. The king reigns for the first half of the year, until harvest, when he is cut down… we see this when our evenings shorten from the solstice in June, until the depths of December when the hours of light lengthen and it is summer again.

Dylan and Lewis – or Lan and Lew – are twins. Lew studies at Cambridge, confident and successful; Lan studies at Bristol, from the family home. His lonely and demanding mother, her husband constantly absent with work overseas, raises his younger sister. Lew can deal with his mother; Lan cannot. Lew has physical prowess, Lan does not.

Lan is the Year King: after Christmas, he leaves Bristol for Exmoor, and as the year grows, so does he.

Some magical-realism illustrates Lan’s dislocation in his search for identity – for brief moments he lives within Lew’s body: he makes love to his girlfriend, he rides a wave, he climbs a rock face.

Lan’s visits to Exmoor are brief at first, but he is soon immersed. He goes to earth. Layers of identity are removed – he leaves the family home, rejects academia, and is drawn to working with the land. He sees the contrast between his arty ‘student type’ and the childhood friend Greg who now works a farm, and represents a naturalness, solidity, at ease with himself. Lan does not ‘belong’ and yet in this space there is freedom from a definition of who he is.

Into this comes Novanna, an American student living in the next valley. Travelled, learned, and from an academic family (with whom she has a happy relationship) she represents a liberal, privileged independence that assumes it can see into Lan and Lew to reveal the family dynamics.

In the spring Lan and Novanna are lovers; at the harvest celebration, again Novanna chooses Lan over his brother Lew. But as autumn draws on, Lan’s growth is challenged – he is forcibly cut free from his old life by the wiles of his mother and Novanna’s wisdom is unwanted.

At the darkest point of the year, Lan is repeating the lyric ‘I am a rock, I am an island’. It’s a mantra that straps him to his sense of self as the mind-swapping phases with Lew grow more frequent and more dangerous.

More layers of myth are introduced when Lan and Lew both descend into the earth – a disused mine is the land of the dead. As they break down, Lan cannot bear the weight of being the ‘failing’ twin, but neither can Lew bear the pressure of being the ‘favoured’ one as they have collided with their mother’s unhappiness. But it emerges that they are not as psychically connected as Lan thinks.

That night he [Lan] awoke, though, weeping once again, and with an immense and hurtful sense he could not identify at first; except that it was to do with his mother. Pity, he decided eventually, pity – which in the end only made him feel sorry for himself too, because if she was lonely, so was he, he ached with loneliness: while Lew lay there, beside him; but not there, because asleep… because he was alone inside his skull and so was Lew.

Year King overflows with myth and meaning, and really marks Penelope Farmer out as a fascinating writer as she explores how we survive the path among brothers and sisters and the needs of those who gave us life. The breadth of her exploration of the inner mind is as wide and expansive as the landscape she uses, and it surpasses something like The Owl Service in this respect; her observations are acute and finely tuned to nuances of meaning in everyday life.

Year King is another title inexplicably out of print…