“How marvellous and strange’ writes Joanna Lumley in the introduction to our copies, ‘that a book which begins and ends with death should be so joyous and wickedly funny’. Joyous and wickedly funny the book is, and we all loved it, finding it a beautifully written, wonderfully sensitive often humorous portrayal of old age, written by Vita Sackville-West when she was only 38 herself.
Sometimes when all five of us in our group have all enjoyed the same book we find the ensuing discussion less stimulating – and probably rather shorter – than when opinions vary. Not so last night. There was so much to discuss and even when we stopped for a while we found ourselves returning to the book, again and again. So many themes, so much to discuss.
We all loved Vita S-W’s easy, artistic style: she conjures up such a vivid picture that you can actually see, vividly, what she is describing – her ghastly children with all their annoying mannerisms, Mr Bucktrout’s neat feet, always carefully arranged in ballet positions, Genoux, her faithful French maid, who crackles as she walks because until May is out she insists on wearing brown paper between her combinations and her petticoats, the unfashionable beauty of her house in Hampstead.
At the start of the book we meet Lady Slane, recently widowed and suddenly freed from all her obligations as an unquestioning appendage to her successful husband for seventy years. To the horror of her unpleasant children she rejects their reluctant offers of a home with them (for rent, of course), gives all her jewels to Mabel, the henpecked wife of the oldest son, and announces she will rent a house in Hampstead, which miraculously is still available thirty years after she first fell in love with it. And off she goes to Hampstead, by underground, aged 88, on her own to arrange her new life.
She and the faithful Genoux quickly settle in after everything is organised; she cuts herself off from her family who can’t imagine how poor dear mother can possibly manage without them to take charge of her every move. She is far from lonely however, because she is quickly befriended by three rather odd men. One of these, Fitzgeorge, instinctively understands her and unlocks her true feelings almost as a therapist might. He had fallen in love with the young and lovely Lady Slane in India, when he had seen her arranging flowers beside her young son’s crib. Both had been aware of an emotional current revealed by a glance but she was respectably married (and to the viceroy of India) and knew nothing must come of it. He tells her now, free at last to flirt if retrospectively, how he felt, that he had hated to see her ‘trapped’ and ‘denying her true nature’. Would Fitzgeorge have supplied to passion (too late now) that she never could enjoy with the very charming but self-controlled Henry, her husband? We’re not told but our bookclub group hoped so!
And as for her true nature, as a child she’d longed to be as unrestricted as a young boy, and cut her hair and run about freely but of course – as a well-brought up young girl in the (late) Victorian era – she could not. As an adult she had felt her true nature was to be a painter but this was never fulfilled either. Could she paint, we all wondered? Was it a genuinely thwarted dream or just a romantic fantasy? The author hints at the former when Lady Slane finds a complete understanding with her great granddaughter, also Deborah, who succeeds in freeing herself; to the horror of her family she has broken off a highly suitable engagement to the oldest son of a duke to follow a musical career and what is more, has cut her hair short! Triumph! Her great grandmother, rather dazed, feels she has achieved her own dream.
Midnight, and we did a quick round of any thwarted dreams/romantic fantasies of our book club members. We agreed that reality, that is personal commitments, earning a living, raising a family, must mean that not only women but men too are not free to do exactly what they want so one can’t feel too aggrieved about it. However, we discovered amongst us an artist – a realistic dream, that, a doctor and a wonderfully talented jazz and classical pianist. That was mine so I can truthfully say, not based on a jot of evidence and on another occasion i might well produce all sorts of equally unrealistic but quite different possibilities.
Finally, on a more serious note, if you haven’t read this book I do urge you to read it; if you’ve read it in the past, do read it again. It is short, easy to read, and quite charming, the sort of book that quickly becomes an old friend.