The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956)

‘The Fountain Overflows’ was Rebecca West’s first book in twenty years; and it was to have been the first volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of her century. She didn’t live quite long enough to complete that story, but after reading this book I am eager to read the next book and to read the final, unfinished work.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it tells of growing up in a creative, musical family, from the perspective of one of the children of that family; a girl named Rose.

The father of the family, Piers Aubrey, was charming but he was thoughtless. He was the editor of a minor newspaper, he was a man who was ready to stand by and act on his convictions, but he was also a man who gambled away any money he earned on the Stock Exchange. He loved his wife, he loved his children, but he seemed unwilling – or unable – to accept the responsibilities that laid upon him.

The Fountain OverflowsHis wife and his children might have resented the choices he made, they might have been disappointed in him; but they weren’t. They loved him, they appreciated his strengths, and they accepted his weaknesses as inevitable in someone who had to venture outside the musical family circle to do battle for them in a world that didn’t appreciate the things that they loved. And so they did their level best to adapt themselves to his absences, to the loss of their good furniture, to frequent changes of address, and to love the copies of family portraits that hung in the children’s bedrooms.

And, of course, it is the mother of the family who holds things together; so clearly adoring her children, her family unit, and her role as mother. She had been a concert pianist, but everything that she had put into achieving that goal was put into family life. She loved finding the right instrument for each child – the violin for Cordelia, her eldest daughter, the piano for each of her twin girls, Rose and Mary; and the flute would – some time into the story – prove to be the instrument for her young son, Richard Quinn.

The author understood – and she made me understand and appreciate – the complex ties that bound that family together.

The story opens with the family on the cusp of moving to a new home in South London, where they will be settled for quite some time. It took me a little while to get my bearings, but I was enchanted with Rose’s voice; with the mixture of the descriptive, the fanciful, and the matter-of-fact; with the intelligence and the insight; and intensity, the love and the gorgeous, child-like attentiveness to detail of it all.

I was just a little sorry that Mary seemed often to disappear; or to be a mere adjunct to Rose, who was sometimes a little too conveniently always at the centre of things.

A picture emerged, and then I was truly captivated, and drawn right into family life.

The story is peppered with incident – most notably the ridding of a cousin’s home from a poltergeist, and the case of a neighbour who has been unjustly accused of murder – but those are not the things that make this story sing.

What does make the story sing?

Well, there’s wonderful insight into the condition of childhood, and the way that, despite its genteel poverty, the family’s lives are rich and full. There’s the drawing close together of a family that is a little isolated, because it is different, because there seems to be no one close to them who understands the very special magic of the creative, artistic life.

The children’s love for each other, that endures even when Cordelia’s wish for a more conventional life maddens them, is caught perfectly. They all adore their little brother, Richard Quinn, who is bright, idiosyncratic, and utterly irresistible. They happily draw their cousin Rosamunde, who is not musical but who they recognise has other wonderful gifts, into their circle. They accept Nancy, daughter of the neighbour accused of murder, too, they are terribly sorry that she seems ungifted, but that is no obstacle to them taking to her hearts. Her difference fascinates them, and they determine that they will help her, as they will help their mother and all of those they love, when their musical gifts rescue them from poverty. They have such wonderful, unwavering faith that they will succeed.

The darkness of the material world, where their father must do battle, is set against the warmth and love of the home that their mother creates. That is why he can always be forgiven. But as the children grow things change. Cordelia could play, but she could not truly understand her music, and so, of course, she could never be a professional musician. Her mother understood that but Cordelia couldn’t, and her pretensions were fostered by an a teacher who had just the same weaknesses. The playing out of this strand is particularly well judged; the contrast between the mother who saw and the teacher who didn’t, and judged the mother harshly, is striking; and I was devastated for Cordelia when she finally came to understand.

That final drama led this novel to its own conclusion.

Taken as a whole it feel idiosyncratic, but that feels right because it is catching all of the twists and turns of lives lived. There were times when it made my heart sing, and there were times when I thought it might break. The writing is so lovely, and it speaks so profoundly of family and musicality, that I was lost when I reached the final page and my life and those lives moved apart.

19 thoughts on “The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956)

  1. I’ve owned this for ages and have never read it – shame on me as it sounds wonderful! I love books that look at the dynamics in a large family. Always so fascinating.


    1. My copy waited a long time, and it took me a little while to get into the book, but it didn’t take me long to be hooked. I hope you’d find the Aubrey family as interesting and engaging as I did.


  2. Lovely review Jane. This is one of many Rebecca Wests I have on Mount TBR – maybe I should set myself a month of just reading her work!


    1. I still have more of her books unread than read. I’m not sure she’d suit being read over a short period though, because her work is diverse and – I’m given to understand – a little uneven. Chronological over a longer period might be the way to go.

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  3. I read this back in 2005, when my reviews were not so long as they are now –

    “Bought 14 Sept 2005 – Book People lucky dip box
    A Wonderful Wonderful novel, satisfyingly long, that I just did not want to end, but have read in great gulps over the past few days. We follow the (mis)fortunes of a delightful family full of musical and literary merit but financial mismanagement, the ancestors of Victoria Clayton’s lovely mad familes. Delightful. Good old Virago – and hooray that we have Persephone carrying on the tradition of publishing wonderful books like this.”

    I read it on Dec 23 and it made it onto my Top 10 that year – which explains why I never put my Top 10 together until the last book of the year has been finished! I don’t seem to have read the other two, though, although I thought I had …


      1. Oh, I didn’t know you liked VC. I love her dry style, a bit like Dodie Smith or even Barbara Comyns. I don’t think I have her most recent one, even!


        1. ‘Stormy Weather’ – which was her most recent book as far as I can see, and it’s only available as an ebook because she was dropped by her publisher and had to go down the self-publishing route.


  4. I’ve just read this review having been away for a few days. I managed to find the trilogy at Barter Books in Northumberland and although I had a sneaking feeling that I had acquired a copy of at least one I thought that I would be cross if I left one there! I must get round to reading them, in order of course!


    1. What a wonderful find! I’m given to understand that this is the strongest of the three books, but I like the look of the sequel and I’m very interested to follow Rose and her family into their future.


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