In this post: Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), The Portrait of a Lady (1880), and Lolly Willowes: Or The Loving Huntsman (1926). And darlings, this is over 3000 words. Quite long. Quite personal. And there it is.
Since exiting Twitter, life has proven to be much less full of urgent musts and dire exigencies. Thus, I find I’ve been able to take a breath, and resist the siren call of every new release, finally to pay attention and respect to the older tomes I have long neglected. No more for them to sit on the shelf, ignored, unloved, untouched. Would that I too would be in the same way unshelved, noticed, loved, and touched; however, ’tis quite the opposite since my Twitter-retreat. If you are reading this, you are one of a very, very few people doing so; my popularity — recondite though it may have been — has mostly evaporated into the ether of, “Oh, Miracle Charlie, whatever did happen to him?”
Story of my life.
Well, as Doctor Frank N. Furter said (sort of) in The Rocky Horror Show: I DIDN’T MAKE THIS FOR YOU! (And yes, that is me to the left, once upon a time when I was playing the role. God, I was beautiful. And I thought I was hideous then. Had I only known.) But, in case you do count on me for book suggestions or talk, here we go.
Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield, Hardcover, 176pp, originally published 1930, this edition October 2016, Macmillan Collector’s Library
Five star glory, this. I kept thinking, “Oh, I wish Sissie [my aunt] were alive so I could read this with her.” We shared deep affection for Dorothy Parker, Helene Hanff, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Fran Lebowitz, all of whom, like E.M. Delafield, and my aunt, were ahead of and out of their times, insurgent seditionists, pointing out the absurdities of culture and society with spiky, barbed humour and trenchant observation.
E.M. Delafield had already published sixteen novels when she began writing the serial of “light middles” for the publication Time and Tide which became this novel. In the guise of the journal of a middle class lady in a Devonshire village — a largely autobiographical persona — the Provincial Lady contends with a disinterested, disapproving, and dourly grumpy spouse, a young daughter with a mostly disapproving French nanny, a worshipped favorite son away at boarding school and prone to showing up with or disappearing with friends on holiday, an overly fertile cat, a vexingly caviling household staff, and a chronic state of shortness of funds and excess of impatient creditors, all under the snoopy watch of the puffed-up pomposity of Lady Boxe and her hoity-toity snobbery.
Through it all, our heroine stays good-humored, often at her own expense, following the dictate of my dear Sissie who could often be heard telling me as I wept, “Better to laugh than cry, my dear.” It is a life lesson I have yet to master, but the Provincial Lady has no such la incapacité. (Warning, the French nanny speaks an awful lot of untranslated French herein, which, for an uncultured dolt like me required either guessing at from context or looking up online as I read — which I was loath to do as I read these ancients to get away from 2018, so, to Google is to gag on the present.)
Robert [her husband] startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold — which he has hitherto ignored — is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.
Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be this time?
There is in those paragraphs both a comfortable acceptance of who she is and the life she’s leading, and a healthy sense of the absurdity of it all. And, to me, her rhythms are very similar to Fran Lebowitz, the short sentences, the digressions and asides, the punch at paragraph’s end.
In any event, I recommend this book with the following reservation: finding it and its sequels is not an easy task. Some can only be gotten used, all of which I am saving up for, and that’s a damned shame because if ever there was a time for learning to accept and be good-humoured about the absurdity of one’s life and times, this is sure as hell that time.
[Update: Since I have been writing this for well on a week now, I have taken some of my recent house-sitting funds and ordered the second in this series, The Provincial Lady Goes Further. I can’t wait for it to arrive. From Britain, no less.]
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, Hardcover, 548pp, originally published in 1880. this version by Nelson Doubleday, date unknown
I’m sure there have been many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pages written about Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and I don’t imagine I’ve much to say that hasn’t already been somewhere better said, so, I will be brief, and personal — because, after all, that’s what my book talk always is: personal. (This certainly did NOT turn out to be brief after all. Sorry.)
First, I believe the edition I read contains the original 1881 text, not the 1908 revision, and I could lie to you and say I mean to compare the two, but, no. It took me ages to get through this novel. In fact, it was this novel which was — in part — responsible for me leaving Twitter. Its sentences are circumlocutory, full of digressions, circling the point with excursuses that confound and contort, and its paragraphs go on for pages at a time, full of divagations and easily confusing colloquy.
In short (long), Henry James was writing for a very different audience-brain than we have today; the work requires concentration, long-term focus and attention. When I began it, I found I had to re-read, time and again, sentences, paragraphs, sections, because my attention had wandered, my brain so accustomed to checking social-media apps every ten minutes and experiencing life parceled into 240 character snippets which, even at that length, have begun to seem overly-long, it could not read the sensually developed and constructed, often musical prose in the manner it was meant to be read — as in, to savor, to sit in relaxed repose and allow it to engulf me, envelop me in its moods and manners. Getting through a page, at first, was nearly impossible for me.
Which was frustrating. Because the shape of my edition of the novel, the smell, the foxed pages, and its length and tone took me back to my childhood, again, when I could often be found reading books shared with or given to me by my aunt, Sissie. I might well have spent an entire summer week doing NOTHING but reading The Portrait of a Lady at my aunt’s home, holed up in one or another of its many unoccupied rooms which were full of various branches of the family’s discarded furniture that I would arrange in a manner I imagined to be that of a New York City apartment, luxury penthouse, which was where I meant to live as a grown-up. I guess I’m still waiting to be that grown-up. I fear he’s passed me by.
But I still want to read like that. I want to — and have been working toward — building a life in which the leisurely reading of sculpted prose, five-hundred pages of classic writing, deeply explored character, and breaths between the sentences — is the kind of life I live. It became clear to me that spending so much energy and pinning so much of my self-worth and image on whether or not I was getting enough likes or being welcomed into the club of literary Twitter had compromised my intelligence. And worse, it made it nearly impossible to sit still and become part of the story as I so often had in my youth.
So, goodbye to Twitter (for now, anyway) and hello to more classics I’ve long ignored, like Portrait of a Lady.
But, what about the book, Charles? Oh, that.
American, Isabel Archer, is brought to Europe by a wealthy aunt; becomes close to her cousin, Ralph, who arranges for her an inheritance which makes her prey for manipulators and users. But her real ruination is in what appears to be her surrender to the conventions and structures of the society and time in which she lives, where her yearning for independence and realized self-hood makes her an outlier. Early on, in Chapter 7, in discussion with her aunt, Mrs. Touchette, who has insisted Isabel leave a drawing room where Lord Warburton, a sort-of-suitor at this point, has been speaking to her, this:
“Of course you are displeased at my interfering with you,” said Mrs. Touchette.
Isabel reflected a moment.
“I am not displeased, but I am surprised — and a good deal puzzled. Was it not proper I should remain in the drawing room?”
“Not in the least. Young girls here don’t sit alone with the gentlemen late at night.”
“You were very right to tell me then,” said Isabel. “I don’t understand it, but I am very glad to know it.”
“I shall always tell you,” her aunt answered, “whenever I see you taking what seems to be too much liberty.”
“Pray do; but I don’t say I shall always think your remonstrance just.”
“Very likely not. You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.
Eventually Isabel — having turned down a number of suitors — weds Gilbert Osmond, who turns out to be a duplicitous beast of a ne’er do well, described here:
The desire to succeed greatly — in something or other — had been the dream of his youth; but as the years went on, the conditions attached to success became so various and repulsive that the idea of making an effort gradually lost its charm.
And finally, in Chapter 42, which takes place in a long, dark night of Isabel’s soul, where she comes to the conclusion she has thrown away her life, made a grievous, foolish error, and yet never honestly considers escaping it, we really have — effectively — come to the ending, which is foreshadowed in her thinking therein, an impression validated when in the last pages of the novel, given an opportunity to save herself, she abjures, having said in what amounts to defeat, “The world is very small.”
A discovery made about the limitations in which she has chosen to live, imprisoning herself in a narrow world, knowing what is thought to be proper, and choosing, to her own detriment and sorrow, to do that thing though it will bring her nothing but sorrow. Some have described Isabel Archer and The Portrait of a Lady as protofeminist, a conclusion with which I have some difficulty agreeing, but I am not a scholar of feminism. However, for me, for it to qualify as such, Isabel Archer would have had to acted with more self-agency rather than acquiesce, throughout and finally, to the conventions of the time.
I suppose such discussions and so many studies made of what some consider Henry James’s finest work are what validate it as a classic. I cannot help but wonder, however, what classics we might have been denied because the Isabel Archers of the time were unable to be free to write their own stories, and we have, instead, a canon largely composed by and through the consciousnesses and experiences of men.
Luckily for us, some writing by women survives, though it is not nearly as well-known as it ought to be, this being the case for my next read:
Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Hardcover, 247pp, 1927, The Viking Press
I loved this with every fibre of my being. I bought it 12 years ago when I began my love affair with the letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, and I never so much as opened it to begin reading until now. The timing could not have been more perfect, it was almost as if the book itself had been putting me off until I’d reached this place in my life where I — like its heroine — recognized the need to depart the “village” in which I live and make my way anew.
Glorious writing, too.
It gave me the same rush of joy and allowed the same disappearance into its experience as did those books read when young, like Little Women, Harriet the Spy, Portnoy’s Complaint (I was terribly precocious, and, well, it explains a lot, doesn’t it? This, my youth-reading list.), and others — everyone has their own list of magical childhood books. I spend much of my adult life looking to recreate that same feeling, and this book, albeit written in 1926, long before my childhood, did that for me.
Lifelong spinster discovers her powers. I so get this. And maybe one needs to be older and have spent a life mostly alone, denying one’s own powers to actually relate to this, but, wow, if you’re anywhere near that place in your life where you’ve begun to question all the shoulds and musts and ought tos, read this. Now. Today.
Lolly, devoted daughter to a father who dies when she is 28, is coerced by force of cultural presumptions, to be subsumed in her brother’s and sister-in-law’s household, were she becomes devoted spinster aunt, serving another generation. Eventually, Lolly comes into her own agency and moves to a distant village, a place peopled by others who turn out to share her — as yet — mostly undiscovered magic.
Early on, we hear how her first niece when told her aunt’s name was Laura, pronounced it as Lolly, a moniker soon accepted and adopted by the rest of the family, and, then, this, after her father — the only one who honored her individuality by continuing to call her Laura — has died and she is leaving his and her home in Somerset and moving to her brother’s London home:
But when Laura went to London she left Laura behind, and entered into a state of Aunt Lolly. She had quitted so much of herself in quitting Somerset that it seemed natural to relinquish her name also. Divested of her easily-worn honours as mistress of the household, shorn of her long meandering country days, sleeping in a smart brass bedstead instead of her old and rather pompous four-poster, wearing unaccustomed clothes and performing unaccustomed duties, she seemed to herself to have become a different person. Or rather, she had become two persons, each different. One was Aunt Lolly, a middle-aging lady, light-footed upon the stairs, and indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations. The other was Miss Willowes, “my sister-in-law Miss Willowes,” whom Caroline would introduce, and abandon to a feeling of being neither light-footed nor indispensable. But Laura was put away. When Henry asked her to witness some document for him her Laura Erminia Willowes seemed as much a thing out of common speech as the Spinster that followed it. She would look, and be surprised that such a dignified name should belong to her.
My aunt, Frances Elizabeth, whom I adored, the single daughter in a family of four children, while the boys were called Howard, Paul, and Joe, she was called Sis, which morphed into Sissie when nieces and nephews began to arrive. She stayed forever in the home of her parents, while the boys went off, married, made families, and Sissie arranged, cooked and cared and cake baked for, shopped for, and cleaned up after all the birthdays and holidays for the entire family in the home she maintained for her parents until they died, after which she was shuffled away to a small, third-floor apartment, until she lost her sight and was relegated against her will to a home for the aged. A very nice home for the aged, but, even so, having spent her life taking care of others in need and decline she had hoped — even felt she ought to have — her final years in the house where she’d spent her entire life, and there, to be taken care of by someone else, a happy ending which, certainly, after all she’d done for others, she deserved.
So, when Lolly stands up to her relatives’ objections and insists on her freedom and a place of her own I cheered and wept. I know what it is to do that, and, too, what it is to not do that.
When my aunt was in decline, she told me she’d taken out a life insurance policy with me as beneficiary and I was to use it to go to the Algonquin Hotel, a place we’d always dreamed of but could never afford to stay. She made me promise I would not wait to do so until it was too late, as had she.
I didn’t wait. I went. On my own. At some great cost, not just financially, but personally, for it was an act of defiance in that, prior to it, I had allowed myself to be given borders by the expectations and agendas of others who claimed to love me. Love, not so much, when I said, out loud, “This is me.”
And so, like Lolly, I, too, left a sort of village in the face of many objections and not some little sniping from others that I was being less than grateful — because the person who cooks and cleans and cares for and does the preparations for the parties and the holidays, who fills in the gaps, and who, at the same time, doesn’t adhere to the cultural assumptions to do with should and ought and must, is always presumed to be lucky to get whatever attention and space they are given, as if, somehow, we who don’t fit easily into the accepted societal mold for out gender, age, etcetera, are, somehow, worth less, less worthy.
Lolly, having had enough of that, strikes out on her own, and in doing so, finds her spine and center and cohort. And, then, this:
One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that — to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day, the workhouse dietary is scientifically calculated to support life. As for the witches who can only express themselves by pins and bed-blighting, they have been warped into that shape by the dismal lives they’ve led.
Yes. Lolly, Laura, defies convention and the cloak of should and ought to find her own unique shape, a life unlike the one she is “supposed” to lead, a life authentic, a life in which she can embrace and explore her own power.
Lolly Willowes is a book absolutely still of our time; when so few people have the courage to stop, step out of the line and risk being run over, trampled by the hordes when doing so, we need heroines who say no. Dead stop. Walk away. And say YES to the soul and the spine and the spirit of self.
I’ve done it, I’m in the process, daily, and while it is rarely easy and often uncomfortable, it contains, for the very first time in my long life, the only stretches of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, in which I have felt both completely myself and without sorrow, and, sometimes, even, with a great deal of happiness.
And so, magically, I was led to open Lolly Willowes, who’d called to me twelve years ago, and waited until I was ready.
Well, that was a lot. Thanks for sticking with me. I promise to try to be briefer henceforth. However, if it feels right to be 3000 words long, well then, I’ll do it. And you can skip through, or skip completely, or read and say WTF?
I wish you your agency and self-hood, and spine and spirit and truth. I’m finding mine, every day, and so, Here I am, going.