Review by Simon
The launch of the Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press, under the editorial eye of blogger and middlebrow expert Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, is an occasion for much rejoicing. His knowledge of neglected writers from the twentieth century is second to none, and I very excited to see which names he picks for the ongoing series. But there was one name in the first tranche that particularly thrilled me: Rachel Ferguson.
Ferguson is known now, if at all, as the author of The Brontës Went to Woolworths and Alas, Poor Lady, which have been reprinted over the years, but the rest of her novels have remained neglected. Dean Street Press have now brought back A Harp in Lowndes Square, A Footman for the Peacock, and Evenfield, written between 1936 and 1942. The last and latest of these is the novel I’ve read for Shiny New Books, and it is a bizarre, enticing curio that could have come from no other pen.
You’ve probably heard people describe novels as not having plots. It’s not the same as one where nothing happens, of course; a case in point is definitely Evenfield. At first, I was a little unsettled by how the novel seemed to be sticking in the ‘introduction to my world’ section, as Barbara Morant told the reader about her family and about Evenfield( the modest house they live in, which she loves and nobody else does). And it dawned on me gradually: this is the point.
The blurb compares Evenfield to Proust, and I think it’s a useful comparison. Now, I haven’t read any Proust (though I have read a book about reading Proust), but I believe À la recherche du temps perdu is best known for being a meandering novel of thought, moving from idea to idea, connected by memory more than narrative sequence. Certainly that is what we get from Barbara (known as Ara to her sister Melisande – Mell – and brother Marcus who is, of course, Cuss).
Ferguson’s author’s note advises that the novel will have little to offer those whose ‘taste lie in the direction of battle, murder, horrors and Hitler’. Instead, we learn about the day-to-day events of her childhood – the parties she went to, the dance classes she attended, the features of Evenfield that she knew and loved with the intimacy that can only exist with the home of one’s childhood. And all is told with Barbara’s quirky, precocious tone. As an example…
All this sort of thing apart, it was our garden which really meant summer to me, and if anybody fears that I am going to enlarge upon it I can assure him that I am going to make strong efforts to refrain, bored to resentment as I have so often been by the exactitudes of novelists and their confounded multi-leaved Encyclopaedia Britannica and the uprisings of their verbum saps. All I will say (at any rate for the moment) is that we had a chancy mesh hammock tied between two apple-trees that bordered the party wall to Stamboul into which it was difficult to get, out of which more difficult to unpack yourself, but at least it was in the shade, unlike the glaring publicities of Mrs. Jasperleigh’s garden furnishings, and that there was a greenhouse in which Stiles seemed to grow nothing but the more repellent cacti and some begonias, yet which smelt quite delicious and stuffy as if the rarest blooms were under cultivation – I can’t think how he did it!
Her voice (and she is not a child; she is looking back on childhood as an adult) is starkly clear throughout. She is a snob, she is eccentric, she has bizarrely fixed ideas on what does or doesn’t constitute acceptable behaviour, and throws all her observations on their head with bizarre metaphors or comparisons.
Evenfield is such a good book because Ferguson captures this persona so well; it is an all-enveloping immersion in the voice of Barbara Morant and her worldview. To be honest, I don’t know how much Ferguson had to invent. I read her autobiography, We Were Amused, a few years ago and the persona is near-identical. I didn’t need Elizabeth Crawford’s introduction (good, but slightly confusing, as it covers all three Ferguson reprints in one go) to tell me how autobiographical Evenfield was – but, while in her actual autobiography she can across as rather insufferable, it is far more forgivable in a character who is at least purporting to be fictional.
We don’t only see her childhood; as she grows up, and they leave Evenfield, we learn about Barbara’s career – making her fortune through, of all things, the lyrics to a popular revue song. And with the fortune she buys back Evenfield, moves there after two decades, and tries to recapture her childhood. There is a dual recapturing; in her house buying, and in the very fact of the narrative at all. This is no simple novel of remembrance – there is something much more active, and Ferguson is very clever in the way she shows the triumphs and dangers of trying to relive the past.
Evenfield is perhaps not the profound work that Proust produced (for I am assured of its profundity!), but it is quintessential Ferguson. Nobody else could craft this eccentric character, family, and book. For those who enjoy a novel that is more about character than plot, and where the house is not only significant but an active participant in the character dynamics, then Evenfield is a wonderfully welcome reprint.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors
Rachel Ferguson, Evenfield (Dean Street Press, 2016). 978-1911413752, paperback, 247pp.
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