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Freedom Triumphs Even In The Twilight Years

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

How can I even begin to do justice to a novel so beautiful, elegant and thoughtful as All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West?

This is a novel which confounds the stereotypical portrayals of older people often found in literature. I’m sure you’ve come across them. There’s the senile grandparent in the rocking chair; the hyper-critical crone; the indomitable matriarch; the feisty woman and any number of variations on those themes.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville West’s protagonist is a very different creation. A woman who, in the twilight of her life turns out to be not ‘the very incarnation of placidity’ described by her children but a woman with a quiet determination to be free.

Lady Deborah Slane is 88 years old and recently widowed. As a young girl she yearned to become a painter. But the spirit of the age and the expectations of her family were against her. So she became instead the wife of “a great man”, the perfect consort of the Viceroy of India and Prime Minister of Britain.

Plans Confounded

When he dies, the couple’s six children are left with a burning question: What To Do About Mother. They agree the house is too big and too expensive for her but where should she live? They know their duty but really none of them want her as a permanent fixture in their homes (far too disruptive). But what if she rotated among the married couples, spending time with each as a kind of paying guest?

And so they put another set of expectations in train, believing their dutiful mother will see the merits of the plan. But they have completely misunderstood this woman. Lady Slane astounds them when she reveals she has made her own plans and has absolutely no need of their help at all. She declares:

“I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age. 

She escapes her children’s clutches by forsaking her home in desirable Kensington for a rented house in the not so desirable suburb of Hampstead.

There she gathers an odd assortment of companions: the owner of the house Mr Bucktrout; her loyal French maid Genoux and the jack-of-all-trades Mr Gosheron. Into this close circle comes a secret admirer, Mr Fitz-George, a savvy art collector who met Lady Slane when she was the highly attractive Vicereine of India.

Freedom to Live

All Passion Spent shows that with physical freedom comes the freedom to explore the past and make sense of the world. In this new phase of her life Lady Slane reflects on frustrated artistic passions, on being young and growing old and on the nature of happiness..

Had she been happy? But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula.

At times satirical and at times amusing, All Passion Spent is insightful about the delights of living according to one’s own desires. Vita Sackville West’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf had, two years earlier, argued the necessity for a woman to ‘room of her own’. Lady Slane doesn’t get her room until late in life but she takes full advantage of the freedom it offers to her life on her own terms.

Multiple Delights

There’s so much in this novel that is sheer delight.

The portrayal of the ghastly children with their platitudinous conversations is masterful. I loved the scenes where Lady Slane and her young (er) friend Mr Fitz-George stroll slowly on Hampstead Heath, stopping frequently because they’re tired (though they pretend they want to admire the view).

Above all I adored the refreshing depiction of an elderly lady who delights in her new found independence. Vita Sackville-West shows us a woman whose calm conventional facade hid a passionate nature and an artist’s eye.

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, …

Only as she approaches the end of her life is her true self set free.

If you’ve not read this book yet, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy/borrow/beg a copy. I promise you will not be disappointed.

If this books gets you thinking about how older people are depicted in literature, do take a look at the Bookword blog where Caroline reflects on that very topic. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Fast Facts

All Passion Spent first appeared in 1931 under the imprint of the Hogarth Press, an independent publishing house run by Leonard Woolf and his wife Virginia. Vita Sackville-West had been Virginia Woolf’s lover and they remained good friends.

Vita Sackville-West was a successful poet and journalist as well as a novelist. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.

With her husband Sir Harold Nicolson she created the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, now owned by the National Trust.

Revealed – results of Classics Club Spin #4:

GrahamGreene

Graham Greene

The roulette wheel for the Classics Club spin-along finished with the ball landing on number 10.Which means I will be reading The Power and the Glory by Grahame  Greene. Phew! I said yesterday that I was hoping to avoid Robinson Crusoe so I’m pleased I avoided that – I will read it at some point but I’m not in the mood for it right now.

The Power and the Glory will actually be a re-read but it’s some thirty years now since I read it and I can’t remember much about it beyond the fact it was about a moral crisis suffered by a priest who is trying to avoid capture by the Mexican authorities. Grahame  Greene was one of the authors on the final year syllabus at university, a time when all our energies were going into revision for finals and had little time for scrutinising texts in much detail.

I’ve always felt since that I didn’t do justice to Mr Greene. Fortunately Simon of Savidge Reads gave me the impetus to put that right with the  ’Greene for Gran’ readalong he organised this summer as a tribute to his book-loving gran. I ended up re-reading The Heart of the Matter, one of his ‘Catholic novels’ which proved a superb experience.

The Power and the Glory is on the Time list of the best 100 novels published in English since 1923, in which it is described as a novel of “intricate moral landscapes, where corrupt characters might still be capable of goodness and virtuous ones indulge their virtues murderously.”

Sounds good doesn’t it?? Some leading figures in the Catholic church didn’t think so – the Cardinal of Westminster summoned Greene to a meeting so that he could read him a letter from the Holy Church condemning the novel and insisting he re-write it. Greene refused.

The rules of the spin-along give me until January 1, 2014 to read this which means I have a wonderful end-of -the-year reading treat in store.

Read more: Best Books of ALL TIME | All-TIME 100 Novels | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/#ixzz2l2SlMUgA

Atkinson’s Life after Life Runs out of Breath

lifeafterlifeIt took three months for my name to get to the top of the library waiting list for Kate Atkinson‘s Life after Life.  Every day that elapsed brought another review in the blogosphere that lauded this novel so the expectation of the delight awaiting me went up a few notches each week.  Which made the disappointment of the actual experience of reading it all the more acute.

So disappointed was I by this novel, that I never got further than half way through. It now has the dubious honour of being the only novel I Did Not Finish this year.

I’ve always enjoyed Atkinson in the past so what went wrong this time?

The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

We’ve all been tempted to play that ‘What If’ game haven’t we?. The one where you look back at your life and wonder what would have happened if only you’d made a different decision;  that you’d said yes when he declared undying love and you just gave him the cold shoulder cos he was really the class nerd. Except years later he turned out to be a real dish.  Or if only you’d seized that chance to go backpacking around Asia for a few months instead of working in a cafe before heading off to university. If only you had that opportunity to wind back the clock and take the untravelled road.

Wistful thinking for most of us but in Atkinson’s novel, the central character Ursula Todd gets to do exactly that; to rewind the clock and to re-live her life many times over.  She’s born in a snowstorm in England in 1910 but dies at birth. Rewind the clock and she survives for a few years and then dies again when she falls off the roof of her house.

It’s an interesting basis for a story and it moves along quite rapidly, Atkinson proving once again what a good storyteller she is. But – and it was a big BUT for me – the cleverness of the idea of a death/life repeating cycle quickly palled. It actually became tedious especially when the content in between wasn’t particularly interesting. By the time the child is 5 she has died at least four times, during which time  World War 1 has come and gone, an event dealt with in an unbelievable cursory fashion: Ursula’s dad goes off to war, her mother starts knitting socks for the war effort, then whoosh, the  war is over.  It’s not enough to counterbalance the number of twists in fate Atkinson introduces. Nor does this pace allow characters to be sufficiently developed to keep the attention.

The further I read, the more I felt that this was a book that was trying to hard to be clever. That she’d had this idea and was milking it for all it was worth but never really examining the most interesting aspect – what would you do differently if you had the chance to replay your life and take a different course.  Maybe if I’d read to the end I would have seen more of this aspect as Ursula became an adult but as a child she never made any life choices, her deaths seemed primarily the result of external forces outside her control. Which made the premise of the novel meaningless for me.

I realise I might be a lone voice in disliking this book. Many people seemed to have loved it and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t even longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  Assuming it was nominated (not sure how you can discover that) maybe it didn’t make the list because the judges thought she had planted a seed of a good idea but never managed to get it to germinate.

It will not stop me reading her novels. I’ve enjoyed every one so far from Behind the Scenes of the Museum through to the Jackson Brodie series. Sorry Kate, this one didn’t do it for me.

Book Review: Cleaner of Chartres

Cleaner of ChartresThere are some books where the author’s message and their view of the world has to be teased out as you read. Sometimes you can get to the end and still not be sure you’ve understood what the author is trying to convince you about or persuade you to believe.

Then there are others where the message is so evident it virtually hits you on the forehead  every few pages.

It’s to the latter category that Salley Vickers‘ novel The Cleaner of Chartres belongs. Not that this book can be described as hard-hitting even if I did develop multiple bruises while reading it. It neither deals with ‘difficult’ subject matter nor features characters whose dialogue is replete with profanities or obscenities.

Far from it.

This is a book which I would describe as ‘cosy’. The kind I might read if I was prostrate on my bed recovering from the ‘flu and lacking in sufficient energy to wrestle with anything requiring more than half my brain power.

I know I’ve made it sound like this novel is dire.

It isn’t.

It just isn’t very good.

It’s ok, nothing more, nothing less.

The novel features a mysterious woman called Agnès Morel. When the novel opens she is working as a cleaner inthe magificent cathedral of Chartres. Who she is and where she came from, no-one really knows. Taciturn by nature but with a natural intelligence she builds a new life while never revealing the secret of her past and a dreadful deed that marred her younger years.

Agnes is a vulnerable woman not only because she has a dark secret but because she finds it difficult to refuse people who ask her to take on new work often at very low wages. The worst culprit is Madame Beck, a gossipy spiteful widow who employs Agnes as a cleaner only to unjustly accuse her of stealing one of her beloved china dolls. The aftermath threatens to breach the wall of secrecy that Agnes has built around herself.

According to the Guardian, Vicker’s novel “explores the darker side of human nature with the lightest touch.” Light in touch for sure, but the dark side of nature is really more like a light shade of grey. There isn’t enough about the disturbing nature of Agnes’s earlier life to counter-act the feelgood element that comes from the heavy emphasis on the positive effect that this woman has on the people around her. Agnes is a touchstone  against which other inhabitants of this town begin to measure their own attitudes and behaviours. Under her influence they start to change so by the end they all regard this woman with affection. Innate goodness and true friendship will conquer all seems to be Vickers’s message.

I kept waiting for the trajectory of the novel to change unexpectedly. But although there is a point at which everything threatens to come falling down on top of Agnes, the effect is transitory. Since I didn’t particularly take to this character or find her believable, I didn’t particularly care what happened to her.

This is a book that will have its fans. I am just not one of them.

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