Saraband is a beautifully wrought and sensitively told coming of age story, set in early 20th century London.
Louie is a quiet and imaginative child, growing up in her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles. She perceives her father as a distant figure, her mother as completely focused on her much younger brother, and her grandmother as the centre of her world.
She loves being out in the world, and her story is scattered with her feelings about the world as the seasons change.
“All along the road from the river the frost made patterns on the ground, and how beautifully the air smelt . . . The sharp air hung over one’s head like the blade of a knife, she imagined it saying ‘Behold you shall be cold, behold you shall be cold . . .’ Winter had a most exciting smell, it made one think of people whom one knew and yet had never met, places where at one time or other one felt sure one must have lived and yet could not remember. Frost hung on the trees, it made them look as if they had gone white during the night from fear, it gave them a very queer stark look.”
She knows that the world is full of possibilities:
‘Whenever she went out for a walk by herself, smelling the cold air all along the road, with the trees stark and white on either side, the exciting feeling took hold of her, the feeling that at any moment she was going to meet somebody or something. She had had it for years ….’
I had to love her. And identify with her.
Louie’s world changes when her cousin Tim comes to stay. She expects to hate him, because he is a boy, because he will occupy the room that was the centre of her imaginary kingdom; but she doesn’t. She is smitten with a sensitive boy who can do something quite magical. Tim can make music.
That brings Louie joy, but it also draws out her underlying insecurity:
“To be beautiful and a musician seemed the height of human achievement. She looked upon him as a work of art, he was something marvellous and holy, something she could never be.”
Her relationship with Tim is a constant as her life changes, and it influences her other relationships. When she is sent to school she is drawn to the bold girl, who questions and breaks the rules. When she goes to secretarial college she becomes friends with a bohemian young woman who disappears long before the end of the course.
This isn’t a plot-driven book; it is a book that tracks the progress of a life. Louie is often passive; reacting to drama rather that creating them. She hadn’t expected to have to earn her own living, but her father lost his life and her family lost its fortune in the Great War. Secretarial college was a sensible step, and it chimed with her idea that she might one day be a writer.
The writing has a lovely clarity and lyricism as it captures Louie’s observation of the people, the places and the happenings in her life. The perspective is always hers.
I understood, and I cared.
I saw the influence of Dorothy Richardson – a friend of the authors – on her writing; but I found Eliot Bliss’s style to be simpler and more accessible. Louie remembered and considered things; I was particularly taken with passages late in the book where she remembered stories her grandmother had told her about her youth, as the end of grandmother’s life was drawing near.
That death, and its consequences for her family, was a turning point in Louie’s life. And not long after that she found herself in a situation where she had to stand up for a friend who could not stand up for herself.
That was her real coming of age. The end of this book but the beginning of a whole new story.
Eliot Bliss didn’t write that story; she wrote very little else. One more known novel, one lost novel, diaries and poems over a period of fifty years.
On the strength of this book, I would be happy to read them.
This is a quiet book, but it is both lovely and profound.
Louie’s thoughts and emotions are utterly real, her world is vividly painted, and Eliot Bliss caught and understand the nuances of her story so well.