Posts Tagged ‘tea’

Re-reading: The Go-Between and Rebecca

July 18, 2012

 I am terribly excited to be going to Port Eliot Festival tomorrow. I will be hosting my Walking Book Club, first to discuss The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and then Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. They are two of my very favourite books and, in preparation for Port Eliot, I’ve had rather a wonderful week re-reading them.

Re-reading a book is so very different to reading something for the first time. Second time round you know, more-or-less, what’s going to happen, roughly how everything will end up. This time I pay much more attention to what the writer’s doing. Oh that’s clever, I think, noticing a little trick of the narrative, yes that’s just what’s needed. You know where the story’s going so it’s all the more fascinating to see how the author’s going to get there. I suppose it feels closer to writing the novel yourself. Your knowledge is more aligned with the author than the characters – you tend to know what will happen before they do.

The funny coincidence with Rebecca and The Go-Between is that they are both told by a narrator who is looking back over past events. Rebecca opens with that infamous dream of Manderley, and then we join the narrator as she recollects herself, back then, when she ‘drove to Manderley for the first time, hopeful and eager’:

I can see myself now, memory spanning the years like a bridge

The whole book is one long memory, and every now and then we get reminded that it’s all in the past, it’s all happened once already, the events have unfolded before.

In The Go-Between it is Leo who revisits the past – that ‘different country’, in another infamous first line – when he opens his diary kept for decades in his old red collar box.

If you’re reading these books for the first time you are at a narrative disadvantage – the narrators know what’s going to happen and you don’t. But if you’ve read it already, really you’re not so different from the narrators, you could almost be telling the story yourself.

What I like most about re-reading is seeing what different things lodge themselves in my mind, compared to the last time.

When I last read Rebecca a year ago, I was obsessed with Manderley, the house in it. Perhaps rightly so, for the house is described in so much detail, conveys such hope and such menace by turn, that it is in many ways a character in its own right. As some of you might remember, I’m also writing a novel about a derelict house, which was in part why I was re-reading Rebecca and so my eyes stared all the wider whenever a ‘house bit’ came up.

When I read The Go-Between, I was working very low down at a very big publishing house, and I was very much in awe of my boss. He told me to read it and so read it I did. I raced through it thinking it must certainly be a work of genius if he thought so. I remember thinking hard about all the classical allusions, the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘delenda est belladonna’, being very impressed with all the French passages – telling myself that my boss wouldn’t have to look up any translations in the notes – and part of me wondered if my boss had been at all like Leo as a boy, slightly awkward, keen to get things right, intelligent in a bit of an odd-ball way. Of course I didn’t say that to him, but I mined the text for what I hoped might be little parallels and clues.

I suppose what you notice in a book says rather a lot more about you than the book. (That’s why the Walking Book Club – where all sorts of different people discuss the book in a very relaxed, meandering fashion – is such fun!) So this time round, older, wiser, having written more myself, what did I notice?

For one thing I felt rather envious of Daphne du Maurier’s masterful building of suspense. Having recently spent a while thinking about Hitchcock for my novel,I wonder if the reason he made films out of so many of her books was because he spotted a fellow master of it. I also noticed how devastatingly effective the ending of The Go-Between is by the shocking thing (I’m not going to give it away, don’t worry) being mentioned so quickly, in just a single sentence which is set as a paragraph on its own. It reminded me a little of the end of A River Runs Through It. Less is more, I tell my writerly self, fiercely.

I noticed the weather. All this grey rain we’ve been having made me long for the scorching summer of The Go-Between, and Leo’s obsession with checking the thermometer chimes with my endlessly checking the BBC weather website for signs of improvement. In Rebecca, it’s raining when the narrator drives down with Maxim to Manderley for the first time. But Maxim assures her:

“This is London rain … you wait, the sun will be shining for you when we come to Manderley’’; and he was right, for the clouds left us at Exeter, they rolled away behind us, leaving a great blue sky abover our heads and a white road in front of us.

Please God let that be the case when we drive down to Port Eliot tomorrow! There’s also the smothering fog that causes the fateful crash of the ship and that wonderful thunderstorm near the end, with the weather building and refusing to break and then the rain falling just as everything threatens to fall apart …

But above all, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’ve noticed tea. Not tea, as in a cup of, but tea as in high tea, with all the trimmings. Both novels are set in big country houses around a hundred years ago, when tea was nearly as important a meal as lunch.

In Rebecca, tea at Manderley is served at precisely half-past four. This is so fixed that, on returning from a walk, the narrator thinks:

I would ask Robert to bring me my tea under the chestnut tree. I glanced at my watch. It was earlier than I thought, not yet four. I would have to wait a bit. It was not the routine at Manderley to have tea before half past.

When tea is not under the chestnut tree, it is served in the library, ‘a stately little performance’:

The solemn ritual went forward as it always did, day after day, the leaves of the table pulled out, the legs adjusted, the laying of the snowy cloth, the putting down of the silver tea-pot and the kettle with the little flame beneath. Scones, sandwiches, three different sorts of cake.

At other times there are ‘dripping crumpets … tiny crisp wedges of toast … that very special gingerbread’ and ‘angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins.’

YUM!

The teas in The Go-Between aren’t described in the same sort of gluttonous detail but they still play an important role. On a seminal visit to Ted, Leo is anxious about missing tea at ‘the Hall’ but in the end stays and has tea with him in his cottage, with tea-cups:

deep and cream-coloured, with a plain gold line round the outside and inside at the bottom, worn by much stirring, a gold flower. I thought them rather common-looking … It was odd to see a man laying the table, though of course the footman did it at the Hall.

It would seem that how one has one’s tea reveals rather a lot.

Oh how I long to live a life where tea was served everyday at 4.30, which I find is just the time one feels a little peckish. How I would love to be brought a buttery crumpet and a cuppa to stave off the tummy rumbles until a late, civilised dinner, rather than resorting (as I too often do) to gobbling a Tracker bar on the way to meet a friend for an after-work drink. I’d settle for tea not even being served to me, on a special cloth-covered table, but having the time and inclination to make it for myself. Even a piece of toast would do it.

All week I’ve been feeling faintly resentful of this yummy, sensible old English tradition being more-or-less wiped out, at least from my life. But then, this morning, I realised there’s nothing to stop me from having tea if I so desire. And today, at half-past four, this is what I concocted:

Not remotely up to Manderley’s standards, but it was still perfectly delicious. Long may the noble and terribly literary tradition continue!

Bath-time with the Bowens

March 21, 2011

I’ve just had rather an unusual experience of reading a book.

It began with Alexandra Harris’s utterly wonderful Romantic Moderns. I’ve blogged about this one before, but in case your memory needs refreshing, Harris meanders around several English writers and artists from the first half or so of the twentieth century, showing how their work is rooted in the past and the countryside. It isn’t all John Betjeman, rather she looks at how the modernism of Woolf, Piper, Brandt, Waugh (and many more) has more in common than Betjeman and his ilk than many people would care to admit. Encyclopaedic knowledge is dispensed with wit, charm and a rather endearing British eccentricity.

I adored every single moment of reading Romantic Moderns, but the added benefit, which I’m only beginning to reap, is the desire to read or re-read some of the books that attracted her attention.

First of all, I re-read Rebecca. That was one of the best reads of last year. What a wonderful novel! As I’d last read it when I was fifteen or so, it yielded rather a lot from a re-reading. I even gave copies to my Granny and my fiancé, and, feeling rather impassioned, hand-sold around ten copies the following week, desperate for others to share the pleasure. And one lady actually came back into the bookshop a few days later to tell me how much she absolutely loved it! (Both my Granny and fiancé enjoyed it too – I’m not sure quite what that means.)

And, most recently, I’ve just read Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of those names that’s always floating around the literary ether. But, for some reason, I’ve only ever caught her name out of the corner of my eye, as it were. She’s mentioned in an interview with an author, for instance, or is dropped in as a comparison in a book review. She never came up in the course of my English degree at Oxford, and, in the bookshop, I’ve never sold any of her books.

So I was intrigued to read about Elizabeth Bowen’s Bowen’s Court in Romantic Moderns. Alexandra Harris argues that Bowen’s intricate detailing of a building gains significance from the fact that it was written during the Second World War, when buildings were being blitzed to smithereens:

Bowen’s Court resists fragmentation and builds something solid over the “broken surface” of the present … Stones, bricks, mortar plead against transience.

My own writing, at the moment, is rather preoccupied with houses, so I was quite excited about reading Bowen’s Court – which promised to be quite a big, quite a brilliant, personal history of a house. And it’s now out of print, so I also had a somewhat geeky sense of academic adventure. As though I might be about to discover a ‘lost classic’.

But I have to be completely honest here and say that, when I started reading Bowen’s Court, I found it a bit boring. And – even worse – as I continued to read it, I still found bits a bit boring.

You see, Bowen’s Court isn’t just an intricate detailing of a house, it is a history of the English in Ireland, and the Bowen family’s part in that history. In many ways, in fact, it’s not dissimilar to The Hare with Amber Eyes in its movement between the microcosm of the family history and the macro of the country’s. And it was tempting to skim through long passages about Irish history or long extracts from old family wills. I want to know more about the house, I kept telling myself, and – aside from the first chapter’s description of it – Bowen’s Court itself doesn’t enter the book until 140 or so pages in, when it was built.

But then this peculiar thing happened. Despite finding it a bit boring, I began to feel a strange tie to the book. It became a source of comfort. As soon as I opened it up and started reading, a calmness descended upon me, together with a smile and an odd feeling like a warm glow.

What a weird feeling to have while reading a history book!

This feeling was entirely down to Elizabeth Bowen herself. She wrote Bowen’s Court in such a personal way that she utterly endeared herself to me. I know this sounds unforgivably naf, but I felt like I’d made friends with her. I felt almost as though I were sitting down for a cuppa and a natter with a best friend.

She may be telling the stories of her ancestors (and, by proxy, the story of Bowen’s Court and the history of Ireland) but it is always, undoubtedly, Elizabeth Bowen – the ever-present ‘I think, I shall tell, I want, I do not want, I have shown, I feel quite sure …’ in the book – who is telling these stories. Take, for instance, her introduction of the first major character in the book:

[Henry] was the first of our Bowens to die in Ireland, he was the founder of the Bowen’s Court family, so from now on I shall call him Henry I.

Oh ok, Henry I it is, then. And, as the book goes on, we get all the way up to Henry VI!

Another idiosyncratic moment is in the story of Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons:

In a small alcoved room in Doneraile Court, a Miss St. Leger became the only lady Free Mason. The popular story is that she hid in a clock, her family say she happened to fall asleep on a couch: anyhow, whether by design or accident, she overheard what the Free Masons were saying, so they made her one of their number.  In her portrait the lady, who later married an Aldworth, has a dogged, impassible face.  I support the idea of the clock.

We get a place – the ‘small alcoved room in Doneraile Court’, the two versions of the story – clock and couch, a bit of Debrett’s-style placing of families – ‘who later married an Aldworth’, a very personal interpretation of her portrait –‘ dogged, impassible face’. And finally, most personal of all, Bowen’s choice of stories: ‘I support the idea of the clock.’

The prose is littered with little asides and anecdotes like this. It’s a very colloquial style, chatty and intimate. I wish it didn’t sound so patronising and disparaging to call it ‘tea-time writing’, only because I feel as though Elizabeth Bowen is leaning over her teacup, having just scoffed a biscuit, a few crumbs on her jacket, to whisper about the clock quite conspiratorially.

Perhaps it’s a bit gossipy and ever so juicy with it. But I also felt that in her writing of the book, in her telling of the stories, Bowen was trying to make sense of them, set things straight in her head. So in the Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons story, we get rather a brisk: ‘anyhow, whether by design or accident’ before coming down in favour of the clock version. There are endless summings-up, ‘What happened was this,’ or, ‘it was no doubt …’ or ‘in fact.’ It’s another way in which it feels like a conversation, as though the story is being finalised, a particular version of events settled upon, in her telling of it.

Bowen’s Court is quite a long book – 450 pages or so – and so I spent a good couple of weeks in Elizabeth Bowen’s company. My favourite time for it was bath-time, after dinner on a quite work-night, disappearing into a hot tub with a whisky and Elizabeth Bowen for an hour or so at a time. I imagine she might have preferred this description to the tea-time one. I felt increasingly fond of her as time went on.

But, the funny thing is, now I’ve finished the book, I don’t feel particularly bereft. Perhaps because it wasn’t really the end of a story. I don’t feel as though the characters have been extinguished, rather that there’s now a pause after several long conversations about them. It’s as though she’s gone away on holiday for a short while and will be back soon with more tales to tell. I can’t wait!