The Rose and the Yew Tree

Hugh Norreys’s quiet life is interrupted when a foreign woman insists on seeing him. She ignores his dismay and manages to persuade him to come with her.

Lying on his deathbed, John Gabriel is a shadow to his own self. But the past has cast a long shadow over him and Norreys since their last encounter in Zagrade. Since Norreys saw him and Isabella Charteris together.

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My tatty copy. ISBN:0-440-17503-8

When the book was published in January 1948, London hardly recovered from the wounds of the War. The cold winds of harsh winter were still blowing hard, her inhabitants impoverished. Meanwhile, Clement Attle’s government had set the nationalisation and the welfare state  in motion and officiated the formation of the National Health Service (NHS) – Early Years in the summNotes On Peril At End Houseer.

 

Over two years earlier Labour won its greatest majority in history. The watershed election held on 5th July 1945 heralded windswept changes in British politics.

Upon this backdrop Westmacott plotted a tempestuous period in the weeks leading to the polling day in a Conservative stronghold. In St. Loo, no less.

Arthur Hastings in Peril At End House describes the imaginary setting at the beginning of the novel as ‘no seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo. It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera…’ However, in Westmacott’s world there are no dead bodies. Instead Hugh Norreys the narrator commences with his recollections seeing a dying man; a man of whom he’s banished from memory.

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Little Gidding church in Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, UK. T.S. Eliot visited in 1936 and named the last of his Four Quartets after the village. Image by Simon Kershaw.

 

We die with the dying;

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead; See, they return, and bring us  with them.

 

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree are of equal duration.

A people without history 

Is not redeemed from time; for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

   Westmacott based her title on a line in  Eliot’s concluding part of his The Four Quartets. The church in which the poet sat in reflection after a long walk is a home of an Anglican community established by Nicholas Ferrar in 17th century. The religious history of it might have inspired Eliot  and yet it was the comfort the poem had offered that might have given Westmacott a suitable plot.

    Thus ‘we die with the dying…’ depicts a scene in which Gabriel tells Norreys as to what happened in Zagrade. The urgency of a closure before a soul leaves the world is the highlight and the subsequent lines ‘ we are born with the dead….’  are translated in  Norreys’ journey to ponder over an eventful summer in a Cornish town.

Smokes were still palpable in English towns and cities when Little Gidding was printed in 1942; desperation and demise were palpable, if not compelling in the aftermath of Luftwaffe bombings. Westmacott understood this very well;  the droning sounds of the bombers and their dull thudding noises before hitting the ground had remained in her. So had Eliot. So had their generation.

Westmacott’s take on the poem sees Norreys lives to tell the paths he, Gabriel and Isabella have trodden.

‘We all start out as the central figure of our own story. Later we wonder, doubt, get confused. So it has been with me. First it was my story. Then I thought it was Jennifer and I together – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult. And then, in my darkness and disillusionment, Isabella sailed across my vision like the moon on a dark night. She became the central theme of the embroidery, and I – I was the cross-stitch background – no more. No more, but also no less, for without the drab background, the pattern will not stand out.

    Now, again, the pattern has shifted. This is not my story, not Isabella’s story. It is the story of John Gabriel.

    The story ends here, where I am beginning it. It ends with John Gabriel. But it also begins here.’

It fascinated me as to why such solemn a mood of the poem would befit for a romance.  Initially, this oddity was confusing. The War was over; shouldn’t she moved on?  I put the book aside and reminded myself that I had belonged to a generation that  experienced nothing like the war years. Then I let the story settle in my head and the lines from Little Gidding filled the gap.

It took me longer than I should to discern the beautiful metaphors with vivid imageries of England in four seasons and at the same time to attempt to understand more Eliot’s religious references in them. In particular his  change of tone – a far cry from The Wasteland- about the War and the suffering. It resulted in my learning to living in a moment; that one’s perception of  longevity or brevity is unique. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

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A carricature in Daily Mirror on 5th June 1945 picturing a wounded VE-day soldier clutching a paper ‘Victory and Peace in Europe’ 

  As her nom-de-plume, Agatha Christie took the liberty of flexing her interest in postwar politics. On the one hand the clash of classes is discussed; a man with no title and social standing being contrasted to a young educated girl brought up in a castle.  On the other is political gossips and local rumours and their ruminations that in Norreys’ elaborations represent the shifting mood of a nation still clutching at straws.

 

 

The distinct voice in Norreys makes him an active participant that J. Larraby in Unfinished Portrait shares only little. Despite both are disabled people and being positioned as an outsider, Larraby is  reluctant and somewhat unreliable.

What’s more, Norreys isn’t as shy as he would like to think about himself and being confined in a wheelchair can be his biggest advantage. He mingles well with the figures in the traditional community which perceives his presence as an intrusion to their privacy. People come up to him to discuss and to confide. He listens to them.

For Gabriel ‘the fire’ it’s the opposite. He’s ruthless and ambitious; his plain features are compensated by his public speaking skills. His record is also incontestable: a crippled war hero and a recipient of Victoria Cross. But the community is divided when a scandal occurs to the (controversial) Conservative candidate days before the casting of the votes.

“That’s one reason why I’m optimistic about Gabriel,’ he [Captain Carslake] said. “He gets on with women.”  

  “But not with Lady St. Loo?”

  Lady St. Loo, Carslake said was being very good about it…She acknowledged quite frankly that she was old fashioned. But she was whole-heartedly behind whatever the [Conservative] Party thought unnecessarily.

  “After all,” said Carslake sadly, “times have changed. We used to have gentlemen in politics. Precious few of them now. I wish this chap was a gentleman, but he isn’t, and there it is. If you can’t have a gentleman, I suppose a hero is the next best thing.”

  Which, I [Hugh Norreys] remarked to Teresa after he had left, was practically an epigram.

As for the orphan beauty Isabella, Westmacott deploys her signature of inverse proposition for her inimitable characters. Her demure behaviour defies her intelligent mind and her dreamy countenance belies her matter-of-fact attitude. These traits surprise and enthrals Norreys; just as the sweet Louise Ledner (Murder in Mesopotamia), Lynn Marchmont (Taken at the Flood) and Sophia Leonides (Crooked House) would do. Nevertheless, these women do not always carry a wise head on their shoulders; each of them has taken some poor decisions that bear damning consequences to the people they care.

 “You think Isabella is a kind of female Fortinbras?” I [Norreys] asked smiling. Teresa smiled too.

   “Not so warlike. But direct of purpose and entirely single-minded. She would never ask herself, ‘why am I like I am? What do I really feel?’ She knows what she feels and she is what she is.” Teresa added softly, “and she will do – what she has to do.”

  “You mean she is fatalistic?”

  “No. But for her I do not think there are ever alternatives. She will never see two possible courses of action- only one. And she will never think of retracing her steps, she will always go on. There’s no backward way for the Isabellas…’

Last but not least, it would be interesting to find out  whether Eliot read the book and his thoughts about it. What made him choose to compar the yew-tree, an evergreen conifer that is native to England to rose, a non-native plant immortalised in the War of the Roses?  Or would a rose have been simply a symbol of beauty, transience and love whilst the long-lived tree a symbol of death and life?

Did they matter? Even if he didn’t peruse the little known book, I’d say Christie was a fan of his.

Finally, I’m bowing out with a paragraph in Three Things About Elsie:

I honestly believe that every person we meet alters us in some way. From the smallest encounter, to a life-long friendship, we are always changed by those who pass through our lives, even if they only walk with us for a short time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unfinished Portrait

Rebecca Rouillard, the winner of Mslexia’s Novel Competition 2017, writes her first novel about her childhood as a white girl in South Africa. ‘Who’s going to read it?’ she thought, believing there would be little market for it. Her winning novel, however, is her attempt for another one; a story of a brother and sister living in a lighthouse – their parents absent.

The theme of childhood is an intriguing one; yet grappling with minutiae details authors are required to  thread their way of presenting them as a fiction. Rouillard may have a point; a number of debut novels is semi-autobiographical.  Their scenes and settings derive from either personal traumas or reflections; reminiscences or deep-seated memories.

unfinishedportrait_agathachristieMeet and Celia J. Larraby. One is a woman on a crossroads in her life and the other is a portrait artist before he lost his hands in the Great War. Both are on holiday – for respective reasons. Their encounter trigger sharing a night together, although far from the inclination to enjoy the pleasure of the flesh between them.

Mary Westmacott is not a name muttered in the highbrow circles of literature. Her first book, Giant’s Bread, comes out four years earlier in 1930; the number of the copies sold are likely to have been modest despite the good reviews. By the same token, her second novel about a thirty-nine-year-old protagonist with a sense of an ending would have drawn little fanfare in its wake; what with the unrivalled success Murder on the Orient Express . It might have been a much more exciting tale than a limbless man listening to a rumbling  childhood stories from an opposite sex with low self efficacy.

What goes on without a bang could actually generate a louder noise. Only a handful people are willing to say the other name of Westmacott towards the thinly-disguised story on the state of mind of a household name whom eleven days of disappearance has been engulfed in mystery. Still an enigma, Agatha Christie neither explains nor clarify the rumours surrounding her breakdown until her last breath.

Unfinished Portrait opens with a Foreword. Sometime after meeting Celia Larraby writes a letter to Mary. It’s accompanied by a manuscript; his take on Celia’s story. Would his bulk of words, being judged as poor in terms of writing techniques, be possible to ‘see the light of day’? Larraby seems to trust Mary’s  judgements on the matter – should she wish to alter some parts so it would be fit for publication.

A fan of Freud’s psychoanalysis theory, Christie has deployed the pyschoanalyst’s The Ego and the Id – Sigmund Freud essay– Das ich un das Es in German- in her depicting her characters and particularly in her analyses of the perpetrators. In writing under her pseudo name she also has applied the same principles;  Celia is the Id – the unconscious thoughts and J.Larraby the Ego – the preconscious that blends the unconscious and the conscious. Consequently, Mary becomes the super-ego. In her hands the edited version of the Id and the Ego are conjured.

As many would have been aware, Freud’s theory is flawed due to the extreme difficulty to gain an exact understanding on the significance between the Id or the Ego. Which one that  is more in determining people’s behaviour?

Christie’s unwavering support to the three-tiered of human’s mind nevertheless is apparent; in the book she’s positioned Mary as an agent and a listener whilst Larraby is a mere messenger to the supposedly true account of events. As a narrator he’s felt the pulling of a string  in a balancing act between his cognitive realisation about his subject and his drive to give Celia a fair representation.

Having given each of them a respective role, Christie allows herself to detach from either Mary, Larraby or Celia. As a result, their voices are distinct. Mary can neither be Celia nor can Larraby know everything about Celia. But he has sufficient details about her. Moreover, what does it matter if Celia only exists in his imagination?

Christie’s approach isn’t unheard of; her blurring the lines and her ‘splitting’ herself in the characters make the seemingly an ordinary unrequited love tale have layers of subplots. On the one hand, explanations are due on her part in order to stop the speculations and on the other she must spare some very personal details that known to her and for her only.

  It’s an odd question, when you come to think of it, the things we choose to remember. For choice there must be, make it as unconscious as you like. Think back yourself- take any year of your childhood. You will remember perhaps five-six incidents. They weren’t important, probably; why have you remembered them out of those three hundred and sixty-five days? Some of them didn’t even mean much to you at the time. And yet, somehow, they’ve persisted…. 

The above excerpt of Larraby’s words to Mary sounds whimsical. Bearing in mind he isn’t soundly equipped as a writer, his somewhat rambling phrases might be justifiable. Fortunately there’s Mary – a good friend?- who would not just bin the manuscript right away; the fact that Louillard has had an insight before sending out her first novel to an agent.

Perusing the book can be likened to a meal made in a slow cooker. Christie as a cook seems to have thrown in the ingredients from the depth of her memories and in the meantime lets its gradual pace mature in the hours that require. As a reader, however, the slothful process of ploughing through to reach the end can be unattractive. After the high notes on Vernon Deyre in Giant’s Bread, J. Larraby plays no encore in Westmacott’s repertoire.

Whether Larraby’s visceral emotions and his poorly constructed narratives are deliberate, Christie has chosen her way to release her version of events through Celia’s confidence in a stranger. For Larraby has never seen her again after the night; the key fact that might score in Mary’s bringing it forward.

Be that as it may, the care in the aspects of a novel is ostensible. Christie ensures that Larraby’s viewpoints are properly challenged by Celia’s admissions concerning the battle with faults in herself. If anything, the book is soul-searching; there’s a touch of raw honesty in her pondering over her part in the failure of her marriage and as far as her mother’s dominance over her are concerned.

Be it unfinished, it’s a portrait after all. Whatever details that have been omitted  underline Christie’s determination to take control of her privacy.

Last but not least, Louillard might wish to reconsider submitting her first novel; just as Winnie M. Lie’s Dark Chapter has done. No rush.