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.

Good Daughters by Mary Hocking (1984)

This is the beginning of a family saga, opening in London in the early 1930s; the first novel of a trilogy.

The story is told by in the third person, the perspective moves around the family and some of those who cross paths with them, but at the centre of the story is twelve year-old Alice, one of three sisters, the middle one.

She was at that interesting stage in life when she had the security of home and family but she was also beginning to see some – but by no means all – of the possibilities that life might have to offer.

“In later years, Alice heard people talk as if those who grew up during the period between the two wars had lived their youth beneath the shadow of the swastika.  But it had not seemed like that at the time.

Although in her childhood older people talked of the war that was just finished, and then, some ten years later, began to talk of the war which was to come, no shadow seemed to touch her until she was sixteen.”

Her father, Stanley, is the dominates his family. He is a headmaster and a lay preacher and he has firm – and maybe idealistic – views about his family should live. He studies his newspaper carefully and he worries about what is happening to the world and what will happen to his daughters when they are grown. His wife, Judith, appreciated his and her daughters feelings and she managed things beautifully, with practical good sense and wonderful diplomatic skills.

ea36ca43929467959386e465341444341587343The story of their eldest daughter, Louise, propels the plot. Her parents hoped that she would go to university but Louise wanted to be an actress. She persuaded them to let her join a drama group, she let them think it was at her girls’ school, but it wasn’t.

And Louise caught the attention of the boys in the group ….

Meanwhile, Alice is juggling friendships with two girls from very different backgrounds who do not get on. Katia is the daughter of a family of Russian-Jewish refugees, while Daphne comes from a more privileged, but probably less happy, background.

Mary Hocking as much pays attention to her secondary characters as her principals, and so the story of those girls and their families brings another aspect to the story, and illuminates the diversity of 1930s London wonderfully well.

Accounts of school life, where the narrative perspective moves towards their teachers are particularly well done. Mary Hocking worked in education until she could support herself by her writing, and it is clear that she had strong feelings and a depth of understanding.

Alice was an average student but she discovered a talent for writing; that confirmed the suspicion I had from the start, that a great deal in this story was drawn from life.

Mary Hocking paints pictures of family life, and of the world around the family, wonderfully well. Her evocation of time and place is pitch perfect, her period details are well chosen, and I didn’t doubt for a moment that she knew and understood everything that she wrote about.

She wrote well, simply and clearly, in good, old-fashioned English.

A wide-ranging cast of characters and some trips away from home – including one to Cornwall, that probably explains where Mary Hocking got her very Cornish surname – meant that there was always something to hold my attention.

But I have the same reservation that I had last time I read one of her books.

The narrative style and the writing style held me at a distance from the story and I would have liked to be a little closer. to feel that I knew -rather than knew of – the Fairley family.

I wish that she had written this book in the first person, and I am sure that she had the understanding, the grasp of her material, that she could have done it. For me, either a little more immediacy in the storytelling or a little more beauty in the prose would have really elevated this book.

That is not to say that it isn’t a very good book. It is!

Mary Hocking was a very fine chronicler of an age she lived through.

And I am eager to read the second and third books of the trilogy.