This Real Night by Rebecca West (1984)

‘This Real Night’ was to be the second volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of a century, but the trilogy was never completed. The first book, ‘The Fountain Overflows’ was published in 1956 but this book wasn’t published until 1984, a year after the author’s death and the final, incomplete book was published not long after, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

I loved ‘The Fountain Overflows’ and I was delighted to find that this book picked up the threads of that story not too much further into the future. I was pulled right back …

The Aubrey children have lost their  father, who left one day and never came back, but their world is stable, and their mother had been able to sell paintings that she knew were real but had led him to believe were copies for significant sums of money.

The musical daughters, Mary and Rose, were moving towards careers as concert pianists, have were studying in musical academies in London. They suffered some setbacks as they stepped out into the world, but there was nothing that really hindered their progress.

Though that is not to say that they were entirely confident.

“Every time we left our pianos the age gave us such assurances that there was to be a new and final establishment of pleasure upon earth. True that when we were at our pianos we knew that this was not true. There is something in the great music that we played which told us that promise will not be kept.”

They were determined to be independent, and unimpressed by the only alternative that might be open to them:

“Indeed marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew of no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.”

Their elder sister, Cordelia, saw the world rather differently. She had been heartbroken when she had been forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career. She had picked it up and re-set her course in life, hoping for a secure future as the wife of a successful man, and fearing that her unconventional home and her inexplicably absent father would harm her prospects.

966a9edf9e6158a597978445851444341587343I was sorry that her sisters, her mother and her author completely failed to understand Cordelia, that they had no time or sympathy for her. She could be trying, but she really deserved better.

They had much more time for their cousin Rosamund; maybe because shared their desire for independence and was working towards a career as a nurse, and maybe because they understood that she had talents quite unlike their own. She had played chess with their father, she and her mother continued to sew to support themselves ….

The family was completed by their young brother, Richard Quinn, who seemed almost too lovely, bright and charming to be true.

The picture of family life was captivating and rich with detail. Rebecca West wrote beautifully and her writing is full of  sentences and expressions to cherish.

Familiar family friends re-appeared; the family’s social circle was small but it cut right across social classes. They often saw Mr Morpurgo,  who was both wealthy and generous, and they also regularly visited a riverside pub, where the landlord was an old family friend.

Those friendships allowed Rebecca West to say a great deal about social issues, by means of extended scenes portraying two very different visits.

This book stands alone, but you really should read ‘The Fountain Overflows’ first.

I think that  first book is stronger than this one; they are both idiosyncratic and oddly structured, but the first book was more polished, it had a stronger narrative, and I found the characters rather more engaging when they were younger. I can quite believe that Rebecca West hadn’t quite finished with her manuscript when she died.

The ending is perfectly done and heart-breaking. The passing of time has consequences, and the Great War casts a shadow.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it does feel authentic. That’s why I feel so attached to this family, why I can love this book for its strengths and forgive it for its weaknesses; and why I want to read the next, unfinished book to find out the future holds for the surviving members of the Aubrey family.

15 thoughts on “This Real Night by Rebecca West (1984)

  1. What an interesting background to the trilogy. I think Rebecca West was a fairly prolific author…I wonder if it was her decision not to publish the rest of the series? They sound like very engaging reads. Thanks for the great review.

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    1. She was prolific and she did have many interests, but I really don’t know more of the background; except that I read an interview she gave near the end of her life where she spoke warmly about ‘The Fountain Overflows’ and so I’m inclined to think she wanted to finish but ran out of time. I’ll read the next book and then I must find a good biography that I hope will help be understand things a little better.

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  2. I’m going to save your review of this one as I have the first book in the trilogy just waiting to be read. West has popped up a few times in recent weeks so she seems to be enjoying a mini revival right now!

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  3. I read this an age ago and have no memory of it – what a shame! I’m a bit caught up in other things at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll be there again when the time is right.

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  4. Interesting that you pick out some of the same extracts I gave in my post on this, coincidentally on the same day! Our views seem pretty similar. I hope to start Cousin Rosamund soon; will look forward to your take on that one.

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  5. I loved This Real Night, possibly more than The Fountain Overflows! Loved Mr Morpurgo and I think he was a little in love with Mrs Aubrey. So glad you are reviewing it. I believe the trilogy was actually going to be a quatrain and there is an outline for a book that follows Cousin Rosamund where West mapped out what would happen to her characters.

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