Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West (1985)

Cousin Rosamund’ is the final, incomplete book of a series that was to tell the story of a century through the story of the lives of the Aubrey family and their circle.

The first book, The Fountain Overflows was published in 1956; the second book, This Real Night, was published in 1984, a year after the author’s death; and then this book was published, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

This book, reckoned to be two-thirds complete by Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the afterword, is less polished than the books came before, and it doesn’t stand up well as a book on its own, but I was drawn in by a wonderfully familiar narrative voice and I was intrigued by the way that the story evolved.

It has moved into a new milieu and a new age, and the covers of the Virago Modern Classics editions of these books reflect the way that this story of a century has developed and changed rather well.

Collages

Twin sisters Rose – who tells the story – and Mary have successful careers as concert pianists, but they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their mother and of their much loved younger brother, Richard Quin.

They have the support of family friends.

Mr Morpugo, who had employed their father and had always been happier with their family than with his own, had helped them to let the family home and found them a lovely new home in St John’s Wood. They recognised that it was the right thing to do, but they vowed to make it as much like south London as they could. Bringing Kate, their much loved family retainer with them, helped a great deal.

Their much-loved cousin Rosamund had achieved her long-held ambition to become a nurse and is sharing a flat with her mother a few miles away. Rose and Mary were sorry not to have Rosamund with them, but they understood that she had to live close to her work, and they appreciated that she wanted to support her mother, who had not had the easiest life.

The Dog and Duck, on the banks of the river Thames, run by old family friends, continued to be a refuge. It showed them a world utterly different from the artistic and domestic worlds they knew, and they had always loved it.

They weren’t just coping with grief; they were coping with their careers not being what they hoped they would be. They loved the playing, they loved the luxuries that success brought them, but they hated the vulgar, social world that they had to move through and they were bitterly disappointed that so few of the people that they met had a real love and understanding of music

The love of their oldest friends sustained Rose and Mary, but they seemed unable to move forward from that, and to form new, adult relationships.

This book follows their painful journey towards emotional and artistic maturity.

They lose their cousin Rosamund, who makes an inexplicable marriage to a man they consider quite beyond the pale, and abandons her career and her mother to travel abroad with him.

They are to some degree reconciled with their elder sister Cordelia, who, after being forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career, had found happiness as the wife of a successful man.

Many of the things that Rebecca West did so well in the books that came before this one are present again. Her prose is rich and vivid, full of sentences and expressions to treasure. She presents extended scenes and long conversations so very well. Her understanding of her characters emotions and situations is so very good, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that she was writing about a world and about people that were utterly real and alive for her.

There are weaknesses though. Rosamund’s marriage was as inexplicable to me as it was to Rose and Mary. The return of Miss Beaver, Cordelia’s old music teacher, seemed driven by a wish for all of the past cast to make a reappearance rather than because the story needed her. Though there seemed to be no concern for Rosamund’s mother after her daughter’s departure.

And – though I’m not sure if this is a weakness or just a difference –  Claire – the girls’ mother – and  Richard Quin brought a warmth that I missed in this book. Of course this book had to be different, it explores bereavement and grief,  but it is not as easy to love as the books that came before.

In the end – after a crisis – Rose choses to move forward and allows herself to love, while Mary choses to retreat from the world. That made wonderful sense after the time I have spent with them, and thinking about how they were alike and how they were different

Rose’s story was so beautifully executed, and I wished I could have followed it for a little longer.

‘He came towards me and I became rigid with disgust, it seemed certain that I must die when he touched me, but instead, of course, I lived.’

Mary’s story was much less complete, but it was easy to see where it was going.

The book as a whole needs editing, but just for a little more clarity; the quality of the writing is still there and it is only when it ends that the story feels incomplete.

The afterword includes the author’s notes about the previous volumes, and I loved the insight into the authors themes, ideas and plans that they gave me. It also contains note for a fourth volume that she would never write. Her plan was ambitious, I’m not convinced that she would have pulled them off, but I do wish that she had written that book.

There have been diminishing returns with this series of books, but the staring point was high and the downward slope has been gentle.

I have loved following the story of the Aubrey family, and I will miss them now I have reached the end.

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