I'm reading West because I am pulling together material for a literary biography of H G Wells, and West's ten-year affair with Wells (1913-1923) was, really, the most important of his life. Of course I don't mean to situate her in a manner entirely subaltern with respect to Wells (except insofar as I am writing a biography of Wells, not of West): she is her own person, a very interesting and important twentieth-century writer both of fiction and non-fiction. I read her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918) and blogged about it in another place. Then I read her Henry James (1916) and her Augustine book (1933), which I may come back to, if I've time. Now I've read her bestselling novel, The Fountain Overflows: a semi-autobiographical tale based on West's own childhood. It's remarkable. I'm just not sure what else it is.
Which is to say, as with Return of the Soldier, I found the experience of reading The Fountain Overflows oddly hard to get a handle on. Having had that experience twice makes me suspect the problem is me—makes me wonder if I'm missing something, or hitting West's writing at some oblique angle. Or maybe it's not me! Maybe it is her!
The Fountain Overflows is about an unusual Edwardian childhood, not a million miles away from Gwen Raverat's Period Piece, which had been published a few years earlier in 1952 (although West's book is more creatively strange, I think, and avoids some of the dangers of eccentricity-as-tweeness of Raverat's book). The story centres on the Aubrey family. Our narrator, Rose, is West's fictional version of her younger self, and it is via her not, I think, wholly reliable perspective that we learn about her two older sisters Cordelia and Mary, and their kid brother, the oddly-monikered Richard Quin (named after a favourite, now deceased, uncle).
We also learn about Clare, their pinched, plain-faced, nervy and put-upon mother, a music-obsessed pianist whose own career was cut short by illness and who wishes her two middle children to become concert pianists in their turn, yet who repeatedly puts down the (on the evidence) remarkable attainments of her oldest daughter Cordelia on the violin. Finally we learn about the family's father: handsome and charismatic but feckless and unreliable. He's often absent pursing one or other get-rich scheme, picking up journalist jobs and losing them, investing imprudently on the stock market and the like. Mostly he is simply not there. The result is that the family never has enough money, and the mother grows more and more stressed in her efforts to maintain their genteel outward life.
At the beginning of the novel, Mr Aubrey goes off to England to edit a provincial newspaper, and Mrs Aubrey, compelled to cut costs, rents-out their Edinburgh apartment and takes the children to live cheaply in the Highlands. When the Edinburgh tenants come to the end of their lease and she brings the children back to the city she discovers that her husband has sold their furniture without consulting her and squandered the money. They all come down South where Mrs Aubrey grows yet more pinched and neurotic, and Mr Aubrey is yet more often absent and unreliable, and, after the logic of these things, the children love him more and more, and increasingly resent their mother.
The main focus of the novel during all this is on the children, their complex interactions, their strangely precise yet often oddly alienated perspectives on adult life. When in the story's latter third a friend's father is killed, and a rather garish murder mystery elbows its way into the plot, it doesn't feel as out of place as it might, because the children's worldview is so oddly off-kilter from the mundane throughout. We have already had a vision of ghostly London ponies (or perhaps not) and a haunting by a poltergeist (or maybe not). There are intimations of telepathy. The book is full of weird little details. Mr Aubrey, a socialist, uses his journalism to campaign against a Government proposal to dye all margarine purple. You find yourself wondering: was there such a bonkers-sounding campaign in the early 1900s? Purple margarine? It's possible, I guess.
There is a quantity of what reads very like padding, I must say: although it is leavened from time to time with some beautifully quasi-surreal visual moments. One example is when the children have to follow their parents home through night-time suburban streets lit—for reasons that are never, I think, explained—not by gaslights but by naphtha-flares (Rosamund is their cousin):
[We walked] quickly past shops lit by naphtha flares. Loose red and yellow flames burned on suspended plates, open to the wind, which sometimes blew them to a bunch of streaming ribbons and jerked all the shadows askew. ‘I love these lights,’ said Rosamund. ... We came to a stop to watch some very fine flares outside a butcher's shop, where a big red-faced man in a blue smock was shouting out long things about meat, as if he were making a speech in a historical play by Shakespeare, ‘attend me lords, the proud insulting queen, with Clifford and the haughty Northumberland and of their feather many more proud birds have wrought the easy melting kind like wax.’ ... The lights and shadows wavered on [Rosamund's] face without disturbing her look of being soft but immoveable. [The Fountain Overflows, 107]Beautifully strange. I could have done with more such moments.
West is absolutely unsparing of her younger self's monstrous snobbishness and offhand selfishness: on a railway journey she and her sisters stare the backs of the terraced houses they pass and ‘try to work out from the washing on the lines the train passes which of the horrid little houses were inhabited by abnormally shaped families’ . It's a bold move in an autobiographical work, and the novel as a whole doesn't entirely put the distance it might have done between this in-story snobbishness and a larger textual condescension. So, for instance, I found myself wondering if West herself could do no better by way of portraying lower class characters than having the husbands call their wives ‘me old trouble and strife’  or drinking beer in the house (‘it was considered a vulgar drink in those days,’ Rose narrates, in case we miss the point; ‘I do not think that my father ever tasted it in his life.’) Anyway: as the story winds down the father abandons the family altogether; the novel ends when Mary and Rose get scholarships to study music at the Prince Albert College in Kensington and the Athenaeum respectively. (West worked on two sequels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund but didn't finish them to her satisfaction; they were published, the latter incomplete, posthumously in 1984-85)
The style, mostly, is clean and expressive, although I wonder if the attempt to capture something of the on-flow, chatty flatness of a child's perspective makes the whole a little too tonally monotonous in large doses. There's a lot of rather wheelspinny dialogue, and a tendency towards descriptive itineraries of things, many many things. From time to time West slips back into over-writing: ‘[Mary's] oval face was as smooth as a silver teaspoon filled with cream’ ; a sleeping child is a ‘bright pupa in a vague case’ ; a woman has ‘a clumsiness which is the muscular equivalent of stammering’ —doesn't really work, that one, I think.
But by the same token there are many very expressive and brilliant descriptive passages. When the family first come to London the train takes them ‘between dark, close-pressed houses with bits built out behind like ladies' bustles’  which is nicely put (the passage goes on to note how the houses are ‘each as different as people are, some tidy, some riotous, some lovely, some nothing, and at last we came to our station’). In the hothouse at Kew gardens, the girls move ‘among the weightless, sawtoothed monotony of the great ferns’ . Their Scottish cousin Jock comes and goes, and one evening plays his flute in their London house. As he readies his instrument, Rose looks through the uncurtained window into the back garden: ‘there was a square of light on the lawn, which meant Papa was working in his study’ . Cousin Jock's flute playing ‘is like the call of a young owl through the summer night’ and awakens some primordial sadness in Rose's heart.
In a wonderfully striking passage near the beginning, the children cannot get to sleep in the new house in the Highlands because they can all hear, outside in the dark, the terrible pounding of some spectral drum. It's a properly eerie moment. They whisper to one another in their shared bedroom, trying to work out what is making the noise, and try to light a match to see what is making the sound only to discover the matches all damp. Finally their mother comes in with a lamp and scolds them for talking.
‘Mamma what is that terrible noise!’Moments like this bring potently into focus the way distance, as with the distance from which middle-age looks back to early childhood, adds a plangent melancholy to experience. Things keep going wrong in life, after all; and at some point everything goes wrong for the last time.
‘A terrible noise! What terrible noise?’ she asked, her eyes and her mouth stupid with sleep.
‘Why, what we are hearing now,’ said Mary.
Mamma murmured, ‘Can something extraordinary be happening?’ With an effort she set herself to listen, and her face lightened. ‘Why children, that is the horses stamping in their stalls.’
We were astonished. ‘What, just those horses that we saw this afternoon?’
‘Yes, those. Why, now I listen, I do not wonder that you were frightened. It is astonishing what a tremendous noise horses make with their hooves.’
‘But why does it sound so sad?’
Yawning, she answered: ‘Well, so does thunder, sad as if everything had gone wrong for the last time. And the sea often sounds sad, and the wind in the trees nearly always. Go to sleep, my lambs.’ [The Fountain Overflows, 14]
But these moments are, to be frank, a little too few and too far between, isolated epiphanies in an over-long novel (easily over 150,000 words) structured so loosely that the reader struggles getting a clear handle on the overall shape; or at least this reader did. There are longueurs. There are many longueurs. The flattened affect of reporting everything on the same level may be deliberate, and is sometimes an expressive textual strategy, but it is also wearing. Some of the description is pinpoint and vivid, but much of it is a matter of listing things, often at great length—‘the end of the room was taken up by a gilded extension of the chimney piece, which rose in tiers to the ceiling, each shelf divided into several compartments, in each of which was a single curio, a Japanese cup and saucer, a vase, a carving in jade or rose quartz or ivory, and about the room were lacquered tables and flimsy chairs with cushions of oriental fabric; but on the walls, which were covered with straw wallpaper striped with fine gold thread, there hung alongside Japanese prints and Canton enamel dishes, more of these pictures in heavy gold frames representing motor-cars in ditches and cats and dogs dressed in motoring clothes’ and so on —which, though perhaps it does reflect how children access and re-present the world, is still something of a grind, reading-wise.
My overwhelming sense of the novel was dominated by this latter sort of writing, and I honestly can't decide if me wanting more of the Shakespeherian butchers shouting out long things about meat in naphtha-lit streets, or more midnight horses stamping their feet like booming ghostly drums—and fewer lists of furnishings and flowers and musicians and so on—whether this is in some profound sense me missing the point of what West is trying to do in this strange, convoluted, sometimes dreary, occasionally extraordinary novel. It certainly could be.