It’s about time that I wrote about this book. I read it in December as part of Cornflower’s book group, but only made a brief comment at the time. I was pleased to find it’s one of those books that you wish you’d read before. You can read what everyone else thought about it here.
This is what I wrote:
“I wasn't sure what to expect as this is the first book by Vita Sackville-West that I've read and I was surprised that she could pack so much in to the story.
I think it's a novel of opposites: male/female, achievement opposed to desires, wealth or poverty in both material and spiritual matters, passive/aggressive, extroverts/introverts, marriage or independence.
I enjoyed it very much and would like to reread it some time. The names interest me: "Lady Slane", suggests she was, well "killed" or maybe stifled in her life by marriage and family life etc.
Someone else has commented on the parallel between Edith and her mother and I wish it had been developed more as well - Edith's character seems to have been partly defined and then abandoned.”
There’s not a lot of plot: Lady Slane is an aging British aristocrat. Her husband has recently died at the age of 94, leaving his family with the problem of “What was to be done about Mother?” The family are four sons and two daughters; the oldest is Herbert, then there are Charles, William, Kay, and the two sisters Carrie and Edith. Lady Slane at 88 is still a beautiful woman and quickly but quietly asserts her independence. She ignores her children and decides to live, with her maid Genoux, in a house in Hampstead that she had first seen thirty years previously.
She reflects on her life – she followed Henry, her husband ‘ … like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent thoughts, darting and dancing …’
She thinks back to her youth when she was full of hopes, she had determined to become a painter, but lived life within herself, not showing outwardly her intensity and longings. She was ‘slain’ by her marriage and family life, although it becomes clear that her ambitions were never more than dreams. As you would expect there are many reflections on the nature of old age and the contrast with youth; Lady Slane prefers to "wallow in old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it."
As I wrote in my comments above this is a novel of contrasts, beautifully written, and expressing so many emotions in a quiet unassuming manner. A gentle book, but highly critical of the way society inhibits the individual and women in particular. There is the contrast between the different attitudes towards men and women. A woman was to be "the wife of a man to whose career she might be a help and an ornament". A man would continue with his career with the addition of a wife, whereas a woman had to forego "the whole of her separate existence".
Another theme in the novel that interested me is that of the nature of the "self". Lady Slane asks herself:
"Who was the she, the "I", that had loved? And Henry who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death,, and therefore dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? ... But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves."