No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West (1961)

This is Vita Sackville’s West’s last novel, and it is everything that a last novel should be. It speaks of a life drawing to a close, it is elegiac and it is haunting.

Edmund Carr was a journalist, who had risen from humble beginnings to become a political columnist for a leading newspaper, and to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and move in elevated social circles. When his doctor told him that he only had a few months to live, and that the end would come suddenly and with little pain, he decided to take extended leave and travel on the same cruise ship as Laura Drysdale.

She was war widow, she moved in the same social circles as him, and he had come to care about very deeply. He had not – and would not – speak to her, or to anyone else, about his feelings, or about his illness. He simply wanted to spend as much of the time that he had left as he could in her company.

The story is told by Edmund, and it reads as in internal monologue, but it is in fact his journal, discovered after his death; with the letter he had obtained from his doctor setting out the facts of his medical condition, in the hope that there would be no confusion or misunderstanding of he was taken ill.

The characterisation was pitch perfect, the voice always rang true, and the author’s choice to tell the story this way was entirely right.

As the ship sails towards warmer climes, Edward settles contentedly into life on board and, as there are only a few other first class passengers, he and Laura fall quite naturally into each other’s company. If she remembered had any idea why her friend had decided to take the same trip that she had spoken about, she gave no indication; but as Edmund spent more time with her his feelings for her deepened. He continued to keep his own counsel, but he began to think about how different his life might had he given less attention to his work and more to the pleasures of society and the possibility of love.

Edmund’s equilibrium was disturbed when he sensed that another man might have a romantic interest in Laura. He and Colonel Dalrymple had been on friendly terms, but seeing him in her company made him terribly jealous, and he struggled to cope with his feelings and feared that he would say or do something that would give away his feelings.

Good manners, and well-bred English reticence prevail, and the friendship between Edmund and Laura endures. The watch the sun setting from the deck, they dine together on an island visit, and they watch a lightning storm from her private balcony in the early hours. And as they talk he learns much more about her. She knew little of life outside her own class and milieu, and yet she had nursed in the war and she had worked with the French resistance.

There is little more that that to tie this story to a particular point in history, and not a great deal to tie it to a particular part of the world. The weather is warm, and a string of islands slips by to mark the passing of time, but no more than that was needed.

I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.

The conversations that make up a large part of this book are beautifully realised, and they say much about the characters and much about the author who created them.

The writing is lovely and wonderfully evocative, so that reading really felt like being on that voyage and seeing all of the sights; with the leisurely progress of the boat perfectly matched by the slowly unfurling narrative.

It was such a pity that some prejudicial attitudes towards other cultures and classes caused quite unnecessary turbulence. In books from earlier periods I could accept them as being of their age, but not in a book from the sixties and in this story.

But the story and the characters will stay with me.

It is a simple story, informed by the author’s own travels, published just a year before her death and surely written at a time when she had to consider her own mortality;  and the portrayal of Edmund’s realisation of his feelings, and of his resolve to not tie Laura to a dying man, is done with delicacy and with grace.

The resolution of the story is perfectly judged; and the right ending to a short novel – and a writing career – that says everything the needed to be said.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

History records that Vita Sackville-West wrote ‘The Edwardians’ on holiday, targeting popular success. Her book was a huge hit, it was adapted for the stage, it was translated  into several languages, but neither its author or its publisher saw it as having any claim to literary greatness.

They were probably right, but it is a  lovely entertainment that captures a particular time and a particular class wonderfully well.

The author wrote what she knew, and at the very beginning of the book she notes that:

“No character in this book is wholly fictitious.”

If you have knowledge of her and her circle you will appreciate that; and understand that she is looking back at the world that she grew up in, comparing it with the world that her mother knew and the very different world that her children knew; and knowing that, while she loved it dearly, it was fatally flawed.

But it doesn’t matter if you know nothing at all, because the book is such a lovely period piece.

edwardiansThe story opens in 1905, with Sebastian, the nineteen year-old Duke of Chevron ascending to the roof of his country home to escape the guests at his mother’s house party. She loves society, while Sebastian isn’t quite sure how he feels. He is drawn to the glamour of his mother’s social set, but he can’t help being aware of how shallow their lives and their values really are.

His estate, Chevron, is a working estate, and Sebastian loved everything he can see and hear from his high vantage point.

“The whole community of the great house was humming at its work. In the stables, men were grooming horses; in the ‘shops’, the carpenters plane sent the wood-chips flying, the diamond of the glazier hissed on the glass; in the forge, the hammer rang in the anvil, and the bellows windily sighed … Sebastian heard the music and saw the vision. It was a tapestry that he saw, and heard the strains of a wind orchestra.”

It had been that way for hundreds of years, with sons following their fathers into the shops to learn a trade, and with positions within the house filled by the daughters and nieces of those already employed;  with staff claiming – and constrained by – their inheritance just as much as the family they served.

All of this is so vividly evoked, and the early chapters are rich with details of the life of the house, the party arrangements, the family, and a veritable army of servants.

One of the weekend visitors to Chevron, Leonard Antequil, didn’t belong to that world; but his adventurous life, including a winter spent alone in a snow hut in the Arctic Circle, and had brought him fame and made him a very desirable guest for the fashionable set.

It may not have occurred to the other guests that he was there as the result of his own of his efforts while they were there only by chance of birth or marriage. Or that he thought little of them.

One night Sebastian invited him up onto the roof, and he spoke to him openly and honestly, sensing his dissatisfaction and urging him to recognise the limitations of his lifestyle and to consider breaking with tradition.

“Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid – too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which are sometimes artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens the world must be served first.”

Sebastian is torn between his deep love of his home and his knowledge of the truth of Antequil’s words.

The arguments are beautifully expressed and perfectly balanced.

Sebastian regretfully declines Antequil’s invitation to accompany him on his next trip; but he never forgets their conversation.

He is seduced by an older woman, a society beauty of his mother’s generation; when their affair is ended by an ultimatum from her husband he drifts into a shallow life as a man about time; and then he draws a middle-class doctor’s wife into his life, and makes the mistake of inviting her to Chevron ….

“He had tried the most fashionable society, and he had tried the middle-class, and in both his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy.”

All of this says much about Sebastian’s world; but it isn’t quite as engaging as those early chapters about life at the family estate.

Meanwhile, the world was changing.

Sebastian’s sister, Viola, knew that, and she was glad.

“For what have our mothers thought of us, all these years?” said Viola; “that we should make a good marriage, so that they might feel that they had done their duty by us, and were rid of their responsibility with an added pride. A successful daughter plus an eligible son-in-law. Any other possibility never entered their heads – that we might consult our own tastes for instance ….”

The author knew that.

The first defection at Chevron, when the head-carpenter’s son chooses a job in the new motor industry rather than follow his father into Chevron’s shops, illustrated that beautifully.

Sebastian was caught up with his own concerns, he was unhappy, but an encounter with Leonard Antequil on the day of the coronation of George V made him realise that he could change his life.

But would he?

I can’t say, and there are lots of details that I haven’t shared.

I loved this book: the prose, the conviction, the wealth of detail, the depiction of society.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s a little uneven, the structure isn’t strong, and much of what it has to say feels familiar.

But it does so much so well, it has such authenticity, and it is a wonderfully readable period piece.