Monday 1 March 2021

Newly Foxed

 March already, and with the new month comes a new issue of that fine and handsome literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. It includes something by me on Julia Strachey (transcribed below), and much else, including an excellent piece by Charles Hebbert on the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, whose name might be familiar to readers of this blog, and another by Roger Hudson on John Byng's extraordinary diaries of his travels in England and Wales towards the end of the 18th century. Highly recommended, as ever. 

‘A Kind of Cosmic Refugee’ 

 Julia Strachey was a writer of rare talent and originality who, in a lifetime of writing, managed to complete and publish only two novels and a number of sketches and short stories. I knew nothing of her until I happened to come across a Penguin reprint of those novels, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man. I was immediately bowled over by their brilliance and originality, and was surprised to discover that, in effect, they are all there is. What stopped this gifted writer from finishing and publishing more? 
   It’s not that her work wasn’t in demand. When Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was published in 1932, it met with a very warm reception. The literary editor of The New Yorker was so impressed that he wrote to Julia and offered to publish anything she cared to send him. Her response was to send nothing for a quarter of a century, until in 1958 she obliged with a sketch, which was duly published – but not until Julia had fought at length, and successfully, to have every single editorial alteration to her piece reversed. Clearly this was not a woman with a strong sense of how to build a literary career.
    It isn’t hard to see why Cheerful Weather for the Wedding so impressed its early readers. A cool, darkly comic account of an upper-middle-class wedding day in Dorset, it is brisk, deftly managed, sharply observed and crisply written, without a word wasted. But, more than that, there is something in the tone of it that is quite unique – something ‘airy and translucent’, as one critic put it. Strachey herself said, rather cryptically, that her aim was to convey a ‘phosphorescent’ impression, and there is a strange kind of luminosity about some descriptive passages, in which the author focuses her attention so fixedly on something that it seems to develop a faintly unearthly glow. Here she is on a pot of ferns:
‘The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly, and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other, and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo – of the silent struggle and strangulation that vegetable life there consists in.’
   Strachey writes as if seeing those ferns for the first time, and her gaze is intense and appalled; she senses the menace lurking in the everyday objects that mass around us.
   The dominant figure in Cheerful Weather is not the reluctant bride, who is quietly getting drunk – or her rejected suitor, who is rather more noisily getting drunk – but Mrs Thatcham, the bride’s mother, a human whirlwind who is typically to be found ‘rushing around the room on tiny feet, snapping off dead daffodil heads from the vases, pulling back window curtains, or pulling them forward, scratching on the carpet with the toe of her tiny shoe where a stain showed up. All this with a sharp anxiety on her face as usual, – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her.’ Her constant refrain is ‘I simply cannot understand it!’, applied to anything that fails to conform to her view of how things should be.
    There is another presence in the story, almost as strong as the human characters, and that is the brisk and blowy spring weather – the ‘cheerful weather’ (Mrs Thatcham’s phrase) of the title. And weather – in this case the ever changing weather of an English summer – is an equally strong presence in the second of Strachey’s novels, An Integrated Man, published (as The Man on the Pier) nearly 20 years after the first, in 1951. In this considerably longer work, events unfold over the length of a summer in the Thirties in a large country cottage, where a group of friends have gathered to talk, walk, eat and pass the time agreeably, while getting on with a little work. The ‘integrated man’ of the title is Ned Moon, who, in the very first paragraph, declares that ‘Everything in my life is well ordered and serene … My days are spent unharassed by pressures that torture and distort. At the age of forty-one, I’m bound to admit that I have become that fabulous beast, an “integrated man”!’ If ever a man were riding for a fall, it is Ned Moon…
   As in Cheerful Weather, Strachey’s descriptive writing is highly distinctive, and summer in the country gives it plenty of scope:
 ‘At ten minutes to one the postman had appeared ... And certain cows, those that had lost their calves, on perceiving his red bicycle from afar, charged joyfully across the field in a bunch, imagining he was bringing back to them their stolen children. When they had realised their mistake, they had stood and trumpeted shrilly as usual for half an hour. Then luncheon – and a massed rendezvous of flies! ... After lunch the cows had suddenly begun to bellow again. The flies, however, had dropped off to sleep.'
  And here, later, are the flies again: 'All of a sudden the flies on the window-pane woke up and started to rage together with a venomous zizzing. One amongst them began to boom deafeningly and to throw its scaly body repeatedly against the glass. Others, too, began to boom in the same echoing manner, and soon all of them together were hurling their scaly bodies against the pane. One could imagine that packets of tintacks were being showered again and again at the glass.' This high-strung, high-pitched style injects tension into what might otherwise seem placid and uneventful scenes (and An Integrated Man does get off to a slow start), but it comes fully into its own as Ned finally succumbs to the erotic fixation that is to prove his undoing. An Integrated Man is an extraordinarily frank and convincing account of the power of lust – and, in the end, the whole action turns on one sudden moment of recognition, conveyed in one startlingly raw paragraph. Impossible to say more of that without giving the plot away, but the climactic scene is a quite unforgettable piece of writing.
   Both Julia Strachey’s novels were in danger of being forgotten altogether when, very enterprisingly, Penguin republished them both in one volume in 1978, introducing them to a whole new readership. Cheerful Weather was also reissued by Persephone Books as recently as 2009. In between, in 1983, came an illuminating volume mixing autobiography and biography – Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge. A friend of Julia’s since childhood, Frances Partridge had inherited her dauntingly voluminous and chaotic papers, including her autobiographical writings. These fragments of memoir – which, typically, had never been organised into a finished book – are vivid and revealing, and include some of her best writing. Merging these with letters, diary entries and her own memories of Julia, Frances Partridge creates a compelling portrait of her friend, and one that goes a long way to explaining the peculiarities of her literary career.
    A strikingly beautiful woman, Julia was also ‘striking in her charm, her unhappiness and her formidable gifts’. And she was funny, spirited, exasperating and, despite everything, lovable. That striking unhappiness, though, is the key, and its roots lay deep. Her autobiographical writings begin with a rapturous, brightly coloured account of her childhood years in India, where her father, Oliver (elder brother of Lytton Strachey), was a senior civil servant. Her mother, Ruby, was young, beautiful and affectionate, and Julia was passionately in love with her. But this Indian paradise was lost with brutal abruptness when, at the age of six, with no word of explanation, Julia was sent with her mother to Italy, then on, with only a nursemaid, to the gloomy London house of a distant Strachey relation, where she was placed in the care of a fire-breathing elderly Scottish nanny. Both her parents had effectively washed their hands of her. This was the first, and hardest, betrayal of her life. She saw it as an expulsion from Paradise, and proof that there was something about her that meant that no one could truly love her. This impression was confirmed when she was sent to live with the formidable Alys Pearsall Smith (‘Aunt Loo’) and her brother, the then revered aphorist Logan, whose sparkling wit was shadowed by crushing (and, to a child, terrifying) depressions. This ménage, in which the two adult principals cordially loathed each other, is brilliantly, and often very comically, described by Julia. But then comes the terrible moment when Aunt Loo inadvertently, but shatteringly, confirms Julia’s own opinion of her unlovableness. After this second betrayal, Julia sees herself as ‘just a dismal, moth-eaten, seedy kind of freak’, ‘an alien – a kind of cosmic refugee, an unwanted changeling from another planet’.
    Considering the emotional legacy that she carried forward from her childhood, it is perhaps a wonder that Julia managed to make as good a life for herself as she did, rackety, unsettled and ill-organised though it often was (two failed marriages, fatal attraction to much younger men, amphetamine addiction). To an extent, she was her own worst enemy, constantly inventing reasons for her failure to apply herself systematically to her craft, complaining of imaginary impediments, spending hours ‘cogitating’ (often lying in bed, with the covers drawn up to her nose) instead of actually writing. But, to become a writer at all, she had to overcome not only her emotional problems but also a crippling dual legacy of Strachey perfectionism – the Stracheys had to be best at everything – and, from the Pearsall Smiths, intense self-criticism. We should be glad that, in all the circumstance, she managed to complete those two wonderful little novels by which she will surely be remembered.

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