Reviewed by Harriet
Well, Faber Finds has done it again. In Issue 1 of SNB I reviewed some of their reprints of the brilliant psychological thrillers by Celia Fremlin, and they have now rediscovered the work of a truly remarkable novelist, Frances Vernon. We (or I, anyway) tend to think of reprints as reaching back into at least the early to middle years of the twentieth century, but Vernon’s six novels appeared between 1982 and 1994, so well within living memory for many of us. Somehow that seems to make it all the more strange that she has been so thoroughly forgotten.
It was her first four novels that Faber kindly sent me, and I have been devouring them with increasing admiration and delight. The first to be published was Privileged Children (1982), written while she was still at school and published just after she turned eighteen. This was followed by Gentlemen and Players (1984), A Desirable Husband (1987) and The Bohemian Girl (1988). Though each novel can very well stand alone and could be read in isolation, one of the most fascinating aspects of them is the fact that they are all intertwined. Vernon has created a couple of families, who appear and reappear throughout the novels, spanning a time period between the 1880s and the 1950s. Thus, in the first novel we meet Diana Molloy and her young daughter Alice, whose growing up and adult life form the centre of the book. The second novel moves to the lives of the three Pagett sisters, following them from childhood to old age. But we’ve already met a Pagett descendent, Miranda, in the first novel, and she reappears in the third, which centres on the marriage of Alice Molloy’s daughter Finola. Finally, the fourth novel takes us back in time to the youth of Alice’s mother Diana. This in itself seems to me an extraordinary achievement. The worlds these people inhabit, ranging from conventional Victorian upper middle-class life in the English provinces to Bohemian, freethinking London in the first half of the twentieth century, are vividly and convincingly imagined and I could not find a single false note anywhere.
But don’t run away with the idea that all you are being offered here is a clever pastiche of the Victorian/early twentieth-century novel. Far from it. I’ve seen Vernon compared to Jane Austen, Ivy Compton Burnett and Barbara Pym, but although that’s all very complimentary, and I can see what people mean, it really does her a disservice, as she is not all that much like any of them. She is her own woman. Her great strength is in showing what goes on under the surface level of peoples’ lives: the little lies people tell in conversations, sometimes for no apparent reason, the decisions they make apparently arbitrarily and know in their hearts they will regret, the heartlessness of people who are blinded by adhering to conventional moral values. Vernon was also very interested in children, who she believed became adults at twelve or thirteen years old – according to her cousin Michael Marten, ‘she thought childhood was a form of slavery, and schools were prisons’. And she was keenly aware of the hypocrisy that surrounded female sexuality in the past.
I wish I could tell you about all four of these great novels, but that would be too much for one review, so I’m staying with two. Privileged Children is the story of Alice Molloy, who is eight years old in 1906 when the novel begins. She lives with her beautiful widowed mother Diana, who, having been cast out by her aristocratic family for marrying a penniless Irishman, has turned to what can only be called serial mistress-hood to survive. Intelligent and freethinking, Diana has always treated Alice as an equal, and by the time she is fourteen she has readily (though painfully) lost her virginity. Following Diana’s death shortly afterwards, she undergoes a hideously restrictive period staying with a vicar uncle in Dorset before managing to escape back to London. She is also pregnant, following an affair with a stable boy in Dorset, but hands the child over to one of her mother’s Bloomsbury friends, who have become her extended family. It is now 1914, and Alice is sixteen. The rest of the novel follows her life through the subsequent seventeen years, during which she becomes a celebrated painter, has a second child, eventually marries the father, discovers she is at least bisexual and has an intense affair with a runaway schoolgirl.
It’s impossible not to admire Alice’s strength of mind and her determination to succeed in her career and to follow her own path. She’s not someone to warm to readily, though, and I did wish she would be nicer to her very interesting and delightful French husband and take more notice of her little girl, who luckily has the support and love not only of her father but of the various friends and relations who make up their unconventional artistic circle.
This is an extraordinarily interesting novel, not only for its highly original subject matter but also for the brilliant evocation of Bohemian London in the first decades of the twentieth century. I kept thinking how daring and shocking it must have seemed at the time and then having to remind myself that it was actually written in the 1980s, which just demonstrates its tremendous historical accuracy.
Six years later, having published a couple more novels in between (and still only 24), Vernon turned her focus onto Alice’s mother Diana, who is followed from her comfortable, wealthy, sheltered childhood in the 1880s through the trajectory that lead to her demi-mondaine status in the the earlier novel. A contemporary reviewer described The Bohemian Girl as a
parable about Victorian values, and the hazards of being female and intelligent in a country as sexist and anti-intellectual as the United Kingdom….This romance has teeth…it bites the eternal issues of class, and sex, and freedom.
It does indeed. The Hon. Diana Blentham has what was probably a fairly typical childhood for a young upper-class girl at the end of the nineteenth century. The house is kept deliberately freezing in the winter, a whim of her mother’s, so the children always have chilblains. Diana and her sisters see relatively little of their mother, and she questions what they really feel about her:
‘Vio, d’you love her?’
‘Of course I do! What funny questions you do ask’.
‘I don’t think I do’.
‘Not as I love – some people. How could I? It’s common sense’.
‘Oh, of course, one couldn’t be as fond of her as one is of Nurse, for example’.
Diana is a highly intelligent and imaginative girl, who writes poetry and longs to go to Cambridge, something the family is much opposed to. Then one day she meets an Irish painter in the park, and falls in love on the spot. Her parents are appalled, and forbid her to marry him, which she instantly does. Love keeps them going, just about, through poverty and the birth of Alice, but Molloy contracts pneumonia and dies, leaving Diana with a pile of unexpected debts. In desperation she takes a lover, which is the final nail in the coffin of her relationship with her mother.
‘Mamma – are you objecting chiefly to the fact that I might – enjoy the act of love?
‘No woman can!’ Lady Blentham almost shouted. She lowered her voice at once. ‘Do you realise, Diana, that it is almost treachery of a kind, to our sex, to encourage a man to think his attentions are anything but disgusting?….You’re not in love, you’re just a mercenary, common little whore’.
Fortunately Diana finds a circle of friends who are not only her intellectual equals but also love and accept her for what she is, and who will continue to love and support her daughter after her death.
We should be most grateful to Faber Finds for unearthing these fascinating novels. I’m not sure how wide an audience they will reach under this imprint – perhaps Persephone or Virago might take them up? In any case, they are really worth seeking out.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Frances Vernon, Privileged Children (Faber: London, 2014). 9780571320783, 199 pp., paperback.
Frances Vernon, The Bohemian Girl (Faber: London, 2014). 9780571321612, 213 pp., paperback.
Read Harriet’s Biographical notes on Frances Vernon in our BookBuzz section here.