The past couple of weeks have been an Indian summer for me, reading first The Far Cry by Emma Smith and then Rummer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, which we discussed in Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. They are both wonderful novels written in the 1940s about a girl going to India. Each one captures something of India’s strange push-pull – the allure of the exotic matched by a shrinking from the unknown. Each one shies away from being an unthinkingly romantic Raj novel to reveal the horror that lies beneath the veneer, the cracks that riddle the surface.
I feel somewhat talked out about Breakfast with the Nikolides, after yesterday’s illuminating walk-talk across the Heath, but, briefly, I think this novel particularly fine because it masquerades as a slender coming-of-age story, and yet touches on many deeply uncomfortable ideas, such as domestic abuse, a mother not liking her child, as well as the acute political unease of British India just before Independence. It is deceptively simple, and acutely affecting. Thank you Virago for republishing so many of Rumer Godden’s novels earlier this year, this one has whet my appetite!
In her Preface to The Far Cry, Emma Smith relates the inspiration for her novel. In 1946, aged twenty-three, she went to India as dogsbody to a documentary film group – whose scriptwriter, incidentally, was Laurie Lee (see here) – to make educational films about tea in Assam. She stepped off the gangplank at Bombay and ‘India burst upon me with the force of an explosion’ and, from then on:
Each moment was vibrant with the thrill of a discovery that had to be recorded, and because such youthful impressions have no store of similar memories to refer to or compare them with, they can be as vivid as the rising of the sun at the dawn of a cloudless newly-created summer’s day, glittering, unique … I scribbled, scribbled accordingly.
Luckily for us, this scribbled diary became the basis for this brilliant novel, which was first published in 1949 and was an instant hit. Luckily for us, again, Persephone Books rescued it from the oblivion into which it had unjustly sunk by republishing it in 2002, with especially pretty endpaper.
Teresa is an awkward young teenager, living with her stern Aunt May when her father, the rather pathetic Randall Digby, who thinks his estranged wife is coming to England to reclaim Teresa, decides to cart her off to India and out of her reach. He decides they will stay with Ruth, his elder daughter from his ‘first brief and nearly happy marriage’, who has married a tea-planter.
It is immediately clear that Teresa and her father haven’t spent much time together and indeed barely know each other. While this leaves the plot ripe for sentiment and a nauseating burgeoning father-daughter relationship, Smith avoids this and sets them, quite brilliantly, against each other. Mr Digby despises Teresa’s gawkiness and tiresomeness, the way that when he takes her to London she is always:
pinching her fingers in taxi doors, losing her ticket, dropping her gloves, being, last and most terrible mortification, sick in a restaurant.
Teresa, rather than quailing under his harsh disapproval, despises the ridiculous fuss her father makes over all the preparations. Then:
Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.
Having realised her advantage, Teresa thrives with her newfound independence and the boat becomes an adventure:
She was a traveller… and her father, in consequence, seemed to her redundant.
Their relationship soon dwindles to an occasional game of cards. It is indeed a ‘tragedy’ – a perfectly observed minor tragedy, which is transformed by Smith’s light touch into something almost as funny as it is sad.
Teresa’s story is engaging, and I enjoyed following her on the boat across to India, especially the quiet friendship she strikes up with the spinster Miss Spooner, who has the quiet wisdom and self-assurance of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. The novel becomes something extraordinary, however, when Teresa and Mr Digby arrive, at last, at Ruth’s bungalow.
Ruth is one of the most chilling, distressing, affecting characters I have ever come across. Smith introduces her right at the start of the book as the endpoint of the journey, and yet we don’t meet her until we’re more than halfway through the novel. Even then, Smith cleverly teases us with another delay, and it is Ruth’s husband Edwin who meets the train, explaining that:
“I’m afraid Ruth’s away. She’s staying with some friends of ours on a neighbouring Garden … But I’m driving over tomorrow to fetch her back, so you’ll see her then.”
We suspect that there might be trouble in paradise. Smith affects a clever and pronounced change in the narrative when she introduces Ruth. Suddenly we see things from her perspective:
It seemed impossible, right up to the last minute, that they should have come … The worst had happened: there they were, faces turned expectantly towards her.
“Father!” she said aloud in her pleased and pleasant voice…
So we know instantly that Ruth is not what she seems. She can feel that her father’s arrival is ‘the worst’ that could happen and yet she can greet him in a ‘pleased and pleasant voice’. All we knew about Ruth until this point is that she is beautiful. She may be indeed beautiful on the exterior, but inside she is something altogether different. A little later, she reflects:
Relations, she realised, were as easy to deceive as anyone else: they came no nearer, they saw no deeper.
One wonders what is she hiding, why must everyone be deceived, what is underneath? And we learn:
Long ago, at an age when most little girls are more concerned about the appearance of their favourite dolls than their own, Ruth had discovered her beauty and marvelled at it. There and then she had decided on the sort of character that would display this beauty best, and not only did she choose her part but she devoted herself to it through all the stages of her growing up. Every person she came across unwittingly strengthened the lie: “Ruth never loses her temper” – and she was at pains never to lose her temper …
Ruth has spent her entire life fabricating a personality to match her appearance, a fascinating and unusual example of the dangers of beauty and vanity. It is so powerful that the book could almost be called ‘Beware of Beauty’! As Smith explains:
There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors…
Ruth is so caught up in maintaining her perfect reflection, that inside she withers and suffers. Achieving the perfect surface means she has lost her interior, her lack of sincerity, and she realises, when marrying Edwin, that she is ‘a fraud’. She longs to confess to him that she’s not like this, that she doesn’t know what she’s like:
‘I’ve forgotten. But not like this – this is pretence. Help me.’
But she doesn’t. Instead, this pretence ruins her and seeps out and infects her marriage. When ‘the far cry’ of the title eventually comes, it is Ruth’s cry of despair, overwhelmed by the impossibility of her life:
There is no solution, her mind cried out within her. It is useless to flee. Where can we fly? We are victims of our own absolute weakness.
This cry must go down among the great feminine cries of literature – next to Wanda’s in A Far Cry from Kensington (see here) and Rosamund’s in The Millstone (see here). (Further suggestions are welcome!)
Really this is an astonishing book. Smith has an uncanny way of penetrating to the heart of each of her characters, with all their myriad differences. One feels one absolutely understands Teresa, Mr Digby, Ruth and Edwin, as well as the minor characters. The only one who remains a mystery is quiet, enigmatic Miss Spooner. Like Forster’s Mrs Moore, she’s the one that slips through your fingers, somehow refusing to be contained by her particular fiction, leaving you wondering about her and longing for more.
Daphne also enjoyed The Far Cry. (And you can read five important life lessons from Daphne here.)