So it was a wonderful coincidence that when I began reading The King of a Rainy Country on Thursday morning, immersing myself in the bohemian world of Susan ‘somewhere off the Tottenham Court Road’, I remembered I was heading down to Soho that very evening for a friend’s birthday party. I decided that if I hurried down to Soho after my day at work in the bookshop, I might just have time to sit in a café for half an hour or so and read a little bit more before joining my friends.
After work, I hopped on the tube, hopped off at Tottenham Court Road and decided to treat myself to an unbelievably expensive coffee at Bar Italia, not least because I think the till they have there is so extraordinary and I wanted to have another peek at it. You could imagine my delight when I sat down with my coffee, feeling peculiarly on holiday with the background noise of Italian radio and the unusually warm evening, when I read in the novel that by extraordinary good fortune, Susan and Neale – her sort of but not quite boyfriend – stumble into a travel agents and end up getting jobs as ‘couriers’, i.e. tour guides, and going to Italy.
I felt as though, just for a moment, my world had collided with Susan’s. Although, as I emerged from the café and headed to the party, finding that everyone was now speaking English and the temperature had dropped rather, the illusion swiftly passed.
Susan is a sympathetic character in more ways than just this accident of circumstances. At one point, she asks another character why she likes her:
O, sympathy of some sort. Tu sei molto simpatico.
It is a huge achievement for a writer to create a character who one feels so instinctively aligned to, in sympathy with. Perhaps it is helped by the honest, confiding opening:
I had been scared for a fortnight. Concentrating on my fear, I became dogged and literal. At once another fear seized me; fear that I might bore Neal.
I recognized the day, the moment I woke, as the day of the interview. Only secondly did I remember I was moving house.
Who hasn’t woken up with that stomach-clenching realisation of terror – that feeling of argh today’s the day, the horrid sweaty nerves of a job interview? And how often has that day of terror collided with a completely different reason to be nervous – moving house or some such – when the fear doubles up on itself? It made me think of the awful morning I awoke to face my final A-level exam, followed by meeting my then boyfriend, who had been wanting to break up with me but had ‘thoughtfully’ decided to wait until I’d finished my exams. The double dread of having to go into that exam hall for an English paper and then walk down to St James’s Park to face the music with him was completely horrific.
You can’t help but sympathise with poor Susan, and admire the way she gets on with it in spite of her nerves, taking a taxi to Neale’s flat, then anxiously taking a bus to the interview:
My mouth was so dry that it caused me a palpable pain to ask for my ticket.
The moment I knew I was utterly committed to her was a couple of paragraphs later when she is walking down Park Lane to the interview and gets lost ‘in autobiographical fantasy’:
I told some imprecisely imagined interlocutor that each year I hoped to have outgrown being moved by the autumn and each year I hadn’t.
It’s just the sort of pretentious idle fantasy in which I indulge when wandering along. Mine usually goes along the lines of imagining what records I’d choose for Desert Island Discs, or what I’d say when asked about the inspiration for my first novel on The Culture Show. Far too long is spent in such vain, idiotic, autobiographical fantasy, and it is cringingly embarrassing to admit to. I loved Susan’s disarming honesty in telling us this straight up.
Of course when Susan then gets a job working for a bookseller, I essentially decided we were versions of the same person, and so shouldn’t really have been so surprised by the coincidence of my going to Italy via Tottenham Court Road that evening.
On the face of it, Brigid Brophy sets up a straightforward narrative. A young woman gets a job and moves in with her boyfriend. But Brophy is too playful and clever for this. The bookseller turns out not to be just a bookseller. just as his name turns out not really to be Finkelheim. The boyfriend turns out not really to be a boyfriend. It’s not long before they move settings and go to Italy to try out a whole new scenario.
Brigid Brophy wrote The King of a Rainy Country in 1956, a time when, I suppose, people’s narratives were beginning to seem particularly changeable. Brophy’s own life certainly twisted and turned, resisting a straightforward path. She went up to Oxford only to be sent down for ‘unspecified offences’. She married an art historian, but then had an open marriage, enjoying affairs with men and women. Like her creator, Susan doesn’t settle into a straightforward life.
It is the ambiguity of Susan and Neale’s relationship and their sexuality that is so exciting. One is always wondering, are they sleeping together? Are they about to sleep together? Are they falling in love? Is Neale going to sleep with the young French man he picked up, who knows no English other than the word ‘quair’? Is Susan still in love with Cynthia, her crush from school?
There is a casualness to gender and relationships that is refreshing today and must have been strikingly unusual in 1956. Susan and Neale are trying things out for size, experimenting with different roles, finding their feet with an innocence and naivete which is very endearing. It is no coincidence that the other works alluded to in the novel include As you Like it and The Marriage of Figaro – with their cross-dressing and ambiguous, playful treatment of gender.
I shall leave you the enjoyable, twisty-turny plot to discover for yourself. Be assured that it is peppered with very funny moments, as well as acute observations. There is an overarching poignancy for being that age, so free and open, and the vulnerability which that entails.
When they pass through Paris, Neale looks up at the shuttered windows:
“Anyway, what is it about the shutters?”
“The slats,” I said.
“Yes, it’s clever. They give an impression you can see in, though in fact you can’t. And isn’t that the whole of romance?”
Perhaps, then, this is the ultimately romantic book, teasing us with its subtle, playful opacity. You think you can see in to Neal and Susan’s relationship, but in fact you can’t. You think you can see into Susan’s feelings about Cynthia, but you can’t. It isn’t that Susan is wilfully hiding from the reader – as I said, she is winningly sympathetic – but she is still discovering her feelings and sexuality herself. We join Susan as she gradually prises open the shutters, and share the spirit of discovery, excitement and pain that it brings.
We should all be grateful to The Coelacanth Press for prising opening the shutters on Brigid Brophy herself. This remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life and, if this is anything to go by, wrote wonderful novels, is almost forgotten. The Coelacanth Press have republished The King of a Rainy Country as a labour of love – it being the only book they’ve published. I urge you to buy it and keep Brophy on the bookshelves. It might even encourage The Coelacanth Press to publish more work by such wrongly neglected, brilliant writers.