Category Archives: Virago Modern Classics
The Favourite of the Gods is the first novel by Sybille Bedford that I’ve read . It will not be the last. This is a writer at ease with the nuances of European social classes and alert, even sympathetic to the oddities of human behaviour. Conscious of their propensity to make poor decisions, she is also alive to the possibilities of their struggle towards fulfilment and happiness.
This 1963 novel is a tale of three generations of women and their, often problematic, relationships: Anna, an American heiress who marries an Italian prince; their Italian born daughter Constanza upon whom the Gods appear to look favourably and her British born daughter Flavia. It’s tale of character and motivation that unfolds within the framing device of a train journey taken across continental Europe by Constanza and Flavia in late 1920s. Almost as an afterthought readers learn that Constanza is travelling to her wedding in Belgium. But the pair never make it further than France. Through their carelessness they lose a valuable ruby ring (an heirloom from Constanza’s father), miss their train connection and end up having to spend the night in a small fishing village in the South of France. Not until the last chapters of the novel do we discover the consequences of those mishaps, the life changing decision taken by Constanza and why the overnight stop become their home for the next 11 years.
In between we learn the story of Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to the prince and her early married years in an Italian palazzo. Anna tries to find a purpose to her life through travel and (misdirected) ‘good works’. But all comes crashing down when she discovers her husband Rico has been unfaithful to her for most of that time (her embarrassment exacerbated because the whole community near their Italian palace knows of the affair). War is declared. Anna departs in a flurry for London, taking 16 year old Constanza with her and vowing that the girl will never see her father again. Her son Giorgio, who is already a spoiled brat by the age of 10, will continue to live with his father.
Constanza is one of life’s golden girls. Naturally intelligent and inquisitive her mother ensures these qualities are polished and honed to perfection through a succession of scholars and tutors in literature, botany, social history and economics. Constanza soaks it all up.
She was as quick as a bird, and as live, and it all came easy to her, natural as life, as breathing, talking, reading, thinking , arguing…. She enjoyed being with people who knew things, she enjoyed logic and pulling questions apart and going to the heart of a matter and looking at more than one side.
Her time in London is one of a heady social life in which she floats between authors, military men, aesthetes, academics and the hunting set. Her’s is also the London of the suffragettes, the young T.S Eliot and Henry James and of ‘rather a magic girl, Virginia Stephen’ (AKA Virgina Woolf). Constanza’ life is not without its setbacks including a rather marriage to a man who begins as a charming rebel but ends as a pompous politician, involvement in a scandalous divorce, feelings of estrangement from her father and a sense that she doesn’t know the truth of the schism between her parents. She suffers for a time, uncertain of what life holds for and conscious of her dwindling ability to engage in adventures. And yet:
She had what all mortals pray for and unfortunately few are given. She had health, she had looks, she had money for her needs. … She was equipped to appreciate, to derive entertainment, connotations, pleasure, from almost any situation she happened to find herself placed in. … And she was not unhappy, there was only a vague disquiet, a nagging question: What is it for? What have I made of it? Where is it going, where can it go?
The qualities that Constanza has in abundance are transferred to her daughter Flavia. She has her mother’s curiosity and independence, though more of a desire for a structured education. But is blessed by a greater sense of proportional and rational thinking than her somewhat mercurial grandmother.
These relationships are all played out against a background of political and social change across Europe: female emancipation, the Great War, the rise of Mussolini, the spectre of the Wall Street crash and depression, the introduction of National Insurance are among the developments mentioned in the novel. Bedford marks the passage of time too by tracing the reading habits of her protagonists. Constanza devoures Racine, Byron, Shelley, Swift and Geoge Eliot before she turns 15. She then moves on to the Sitwells, Erza Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her mother’s tastes remain more conservative – holding H. G Wells in awe and extolled the virtues of John Galsworthy . “But what she saw no loin in was formlessness, ugliness, obscurity” which is how she views Virginia Woolf’s A Voyage Out. D H Lawrence she considered incomprehensible, E. M Forster pointless and drab and Proust ‘affected’.
The richness of issues and themes plus the wonderful characterisation of these three women make this novel a fascinating read. If you don’t believe me, just try it for yourself.
Author: A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Published: 1963 by Collins. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1984
Length: 312 pages
My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016
Read further: There is a sequel to A Favourite of the Gods, called A Compass Error (published in 1968) which further develops the character of Flavia.
The Guardian gives a good insight into Bedford’s legacy with this article
When I spotted a Virago copy of Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell in an Oxford charity shop, I knew precisely three things about M. J Farrell:
- She was Irish.
- She also wrote under the name of Molly Keane – a name popular among bloggers who are avid readers of Virago Modern Classics.
- Her work was characterised by a sharpness of wit that was directed at the Anglo Irish landed gentry of which she was a member.
About Devoted Ladies I knew next to nothing. The back cover blurb told me it was her fifth novel and was unusual in that the elements which characterised her first four publications – namely, horses, romance and snobbery – were replaced by something rather more sensational and gritty. Rather more up my street in other words.
This is a tale of two women who live together within the fashionable London society circle of the 1930s. Farrell avoids any mention of a physical relationship between them but drops enough hints for us to detect this is a lesbian couple; a daring topic for a novel given that only a few years earlier Radclyffe Hall’s novel on the same theme, Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity.
It doesn’t take long to further establish that far from being ‘devoted’ Jessica and Jane have a rather stormy relationship. Jessica is butch, domineering and sharp-tongued; Jane is softer, a bit silly, and a drinker. She is easy prey to the cruel possessive behaviour of her ‘friend’.
Her cohort of friends don’t care for what they witness – particularly when things turn nastily violent – and fear for her safety. But they’re also rather tired of what they consider Jane’s histrionics. One of them, the playwright Sylvester Browne, is too wrapped up in his own world and anyway doesn’t see it as his business to intervene. It’s left to a newcomer among this group, George Playfair, an Irish gentleman of the hunting class, to come to Jane’s aid. When he finds Jane recovering from a bout of alcoholic poisoning he takes pity on her and persuades her to leave her London home and visit Ireland to aid her recovery. Since he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of her relationship with Jessica he’s oblivious to the way she will interpret his invitation as a challenge to her own control over Jane. The battle is set with Jane caught in the middle.
It took a while for me to warm to Devoted Ladies. I enjoyed the first scenes which lay out a world which has so few cares it can devote itself entirely to hedonistic pleasures. Jane isn’t a particularly likeable character – in the early chapters she plays a lot on the little girl lost act but is essentially a drunk much given to plaintive requests to her guests to”fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible.” when she feels she is being ignored. The first chapters set in Ireland didn’t set me alight either since much of this revolves around Sylvester and the Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne, two cousins with whom he stays in Ireland and who struck me as rather pathetic initially.
Piggy is a charmless character when we first get to know her; lacking self knowledge and consideration for Hester, spending money on frivolous presents ye nothing that would make the house they share more habitable. But then Piggy began to get a hold on me the more I saw how Farrell made her silliness and self centred nature a mask. Piggy is so desperate to be loved and valued, that she goes to quite extraordinary lengths to gain the approval of her so-called friend Joan though their every encounter uses her hours of anxiety. How to time her arrival at Joan’s house so as not to appear too eager yet not lose a precious moment of time with Joan? And then the vexed question of what to wear, requiring a delicate balance between looking good and yet not looking as if she’d gone out to buy something new especially.
How To Look One’s Best in Old Clothes was a question that fevered Piggy to her very soul. The passion that was on her to look her very best on these lovely days was set about miserably by the knowledge that her appearance in Castlequarter in any clothes not in rags would be met by a cold scrutiny, and Joan’s faint ridiculing voice would examine the matter, saying “Why are you so grand today Piggy?” or “i did mean to take the children ratting in the manure heaps this morning but it seems a bit severe on your nice new clothes.
Poor Piggy resorts to deliberately cutting holes in perfectly good clothes, wearing clothes stained with a dog’s footprints and an odd ensemble, just to try and pass muster. This is a woman whom Farrell shows, is not living – and has never really lived – but merely existed; a victim to stronger characters who know exactly how to pull her strings. Though Devoted Ladies is meant to be comic – and indeed it has its witty moments – my overwhelming feeling when I learned Piggy’s fate was of profound sadness for a life wasted.
What started as a novel I was ambivalent about – and at times considered abandoning – became by the end a moving experience. It’s apparently not Farrell/Keane’s best work (that seems to be considered Good Behaviour which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981) but it’s given me enough of a taste to read her other novels.
Author: Devoted Ladies by M. J Farrell
Published: 1934. Re-issued as Virago Modern Classic number 138 in 1984
Length: 303 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until All August/All Virago month and #20booksofsummer 2016
Opinions about this novel differ considerably according to some of the reviews on Goodreads. For another fan take a look at the review by heavenali