Tuesday, November 14, 2017

When a Character Strikes a Chord

You never know when a character in a book is going to strike a chord in you.  I just finished a novel where the main character did, and she happens to have been an 88 year old British woman from a book published in 1931.  Now, I'm no kid myself, but I can't say that I normally feel much of a connection with 88 year old women (or men) from anywhere at anytime.  Yet with this one, for whatever reason, I did.  The book is Vita Sackville West's All Passion Spent, and the character is Lady Slane.

Vita Sackville West came from an aristocratic family and lived quite comfortably her entire life, so she is definitely someone who today we'd call privileged. In fact, I'm pretty sure she was called that in her own day, and she was very well aware of this fact herself.  She lived from 1892 to 1962 and had a long writing career, but her most productive period was from the mid-1920's to the mid-1930's, which happens to be the period when she and Virginia Woolf were lovers.  The two read, admired, and discussed each other's works and explored a number of similar ideas.  As Victoria Glendinning says in her introduction to the edition I have of All Passion Spent, "There is a strong connection between the ideas of All Passion Spent and Virginia Woolf's two non-fiction books about women, A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas....conceived at the time of All Passion Spent."

But anyway, what do I find so appealing about the venerable Lady Slane?

All Passion Spent begins in London with the death of Lady Slane's husband. He was a famous man in Britain, a diplomat during his life, a member of the House of Lords.  Lady Slane has six children (none younger than 60), some with children, and even grandchildren, of their own.  The book's opening scene shows the family gathered at the husband's funeral, and Lady Slane's children, in a way that is quite funny as presented, are all discussing what in the world to do with their mother.  You see, their mother has always lived entirely for their father, and though she has a competence they can't deny since she did raise all of them, they view her as someone who is just there, who barely has a thought or idea of her own.  Mother is mother, and was their father's perfect wife, but beyond that, there isn't much to say.  They plan to sell the main family house where she and their father lived, and they figure they will shuttle her around among themselves, each doing his or her part to take care of her for the rest of her life.

But Lady Slane, as they discover, has other plans.  It turns out she doesn't want to live with any of them and wants to use the money from the sale of the house to buy a small cottage she saw in Hampstead, a distant part of London, a sort of greenery filled suburb at the time.  She saw this vacant cottage, she says, 30 years ago, but she is positive the cottage is still there and available.

Her children think she has lost her mind (it must be the grief that's affected her), and besides, when 30 years ago did she ever go to Hampstead? They find it disturbing that she may have done something on her own that they had no knowledge of.  Still, she's their mother, and if she wants to go Hampstead, she can go. One of her daughters says she will accompany her there.  That's okay, says Lady Slane, thanking her daughter for the offer, but she will go there by herself.

So the novel begins, and the rest of the book settles in with Lady Slane in her Hampstead cottage. For company, she has her 86 year old French maid, who's been with her for 60 years, and she has the owner of the cottage and one or two other old men who visit from time to time to chat.  There is no late life romance in the story. Nothing like that.  It's not that kind of book.  Lady Slane wants merely to have the time to be herself as she always wanted to and never, because of marriage and familial and social obligations, could.  To quote Victoria Glendinning again: "...this novel reverses the usual order of things.  It is the children who are staid and narrow-minded, and their gentle aged mother who turns out to be revolutionary.  She will live her own life, for the first time, according to her own inclinations and her own creeds...She doesn't want her children to visit her, and she certainly doesn't want to see her grandchildren."  I should add that the entire book, witty through and through, is written in a fluid prose that you really don't want to stop reading.

But again, what do I find appealing about Lady Slane?  She's old.  I'm getting there.  She's a woman. I'm not.  She's wealthy and white and very British.  I'm none of these things.  I don't have a maid.  My wife is alive and well, and I enjoy spending a lot of time with my kid.  So it's not a specific thing about her.  And it's not because she has some money. It's - how shall I put it? - more of a general quality.  There's something about the idea of retreating from all the noise that I find irresistable.  She leaves behind the striving, the competition, the yammering of everyone in your ears.  She bids adieu to the everyday aggression and the phony smiles.  Of course she has the means to do that; that's a basic premise of the story.  But reading All Passion Spent now, in the age of social media, in a time when there's a constant bombardment of information, both from people you dislike and those you agree with, and it seems that everyone has an opinion that you simply must hear and if you don't embrace that opinion, you're nothing less than an enemy, I just felt, you know what, I wish for awhile, despite her age, I could be Lady Slane.  I wish I could be living in that cottage and doing nothing more than taking walks in pleasant parks and chatting with friends in a quiet place.  Funny, but a book written over 80 years ago by a person with whom I have nothing in common, about a character with whom I share few traits, filled a need and provided an escape from the grating and clamor of today.


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