Tatting and Mandolinata by Faith Compton Mackenzie

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Reviewed by Harriet

This intriguing title indicates the presence of two separate works by Faith Compton Mackenzie, of whom you’ve probably never heard. The name will ring a bell though, as she was married to Sir Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie (known as Monty), a hugely prolific novelist probably best known today for Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen. The Mackenzies moved around a great deal during their not very happy marriage, including two years spent in Cornwall and seven years living on the Italian island of Capri. Faith’s experiences in these two locations formed the settings for the two works in this volume. Mandolinata, though it appears second in this volume, was actually the first to be published. It’s a collection of short stories written in the 1920s and first published in 1931. Tatting, a relatively short novel, appeared more than twenty-five years later, in 1957. 

Although it’s set in the early 1900s, Tatting draws very fully on the Mackenzies’ time in Cornwall. They had gone there to stay with one of Monty’s friends, the Reverend Sandys Wilson, an eccentric Anglo-Catholic vicar, because Monty had decided he would like to become a lay preacher, which he did indeed succeed in doing. Father St John in the novel is clearly based on Wilson, and the young married couple Laura and Guy are obviously Faith and Monty. Another central character, Ariadne in the novel, represents Althea Gyles, an Irish artist and poet who led a very varied and fascinating life, ranging from an exciting life in Paris including friendships with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley to almost starving to death in a London garret. There was almost certainly also a model for the novel’s most vivid character, Miss Want, known as the ‘church fowl’, whose desire to interfere and join in with the priest’s household is the source of much of the black-ish comedy of this entertaining story. It is her rather obsessive hobby that gives the novel its name – tatting is a kind of lace-making handicraft which uses a shuttle to weave threads together in a pattern, a description that could perhaps be applied to the plot of the novel. There is of course a plot of sorts, dealing with Laura and Guy’s arrival and residence at the vicarage and Guy’s start as a lay reader, and the effect of Ariadne’s presence, but more than anything this is a character driven novel. Father St John comes vividly to life: having driven most of his parishioners away by his decidedly High Anglican practices, he enjoys cooking (‘Cooking was more beneficial than prayer. That was, of course, because it was more absorbing’), though he gets rather tired of preparing a special breakfast every day for Ariadne, who lies in bed every day till she smells lunch. But his life is chiefly made challenging by the constant presence of Miss Want, who he can never shake off. On a visit to the church with Laura they spot Miss Want kneeling in a pew with her face buried in her hands:

‘What on earth was Miss Want doing there?’ said the vicar with disgust when they were outside.

‘Saying her prayers I suppose.’

‘But why? She has no business to be fussing in and out of the church at all hours. It will have to be locked.’

I have to say I felt a bit sorry for Miss Want, whose desperation to participate in the Vicar’s life despite her horror of his high church practices clearly masks a dreadful loneliness. But that’s just me. This delightful novel has been compared to Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett. I also got some glimpses of a slightly twisted Barbara Pym. Great stuff anyway.

Then there are the stories in Mandolinata. The fourteen stories were written over a number of years. The first few are set in Capri, and may depict characters known to Faith, some of whom have rather sad lives. The fourth story, ‘Variations on a Theme’ is actually in two parts, the first in Capri, the second in Rome. The theme is that of a young inexperienced woman’s first brush with sex. In ‘Miss Mabel Ebony’, Bron, an wise older woman, encounters the protagonist, ‘a tall, drooping creature with large, hysterical eyes and an abundance of colourless hair’. Mabel consults her about a serious problem she has – she’s being pursued by a local boatman and has decided to leave Capri as soon as possible. Three weeks pass, and Bron is sitting by the sea one day when she spots a bright figure, ‘a girl with two fat pigtails, bareheaded, barelegged, brown-necked’, and ‘blooming like a rose’ Of course this is Mabel, climbing into a boat with a superbly beautiful Italian who is singing in a rich tenor voice. In ‘Lillie in Rome’, Bron meets Lillie, who has fallen in love with Mario but is being summoned home to Australia by her parents. Will she stay or will she go? These are uplifting stories but others are sad, like ‘With Custody of the Child’, in which little Guy discovers that his adored mother has left, leaving him to be looked after by a father he barely knows. In the next story, ‘Queer Lady’, a little girl named Virtue encounters a ‘wonderful being, all roseate, with bright gold hair’. Virtue takes her for a fairy, and is enthralled by her. Unfortunately her nanny knows exactly what sort of woman this is, and Virtue is quickly whisked away. Yet another child is the protagonist of ‘The Unattainable’, in which a wealthy woman shopping in Woolworths spots this scruffy little child gazing in awe at some little soaps shaped like animals. Taking pity on her, she hands over a couple of them all nicely wrapped up, and goes off feeling proud of her generosity and imagining the child’s delight at ‘such a heavenly surprise’. Little does she know that the child’s mother, believing her daughter has stolen them, has thrown them out of the window of the omnibus. There’s more, including one about a horrible rector who refuses to stop having sex with his wife despite the fact that she is ill and exhausted after the birth of her tenth child.

Clearly Faith Compton Mackenzie was a writer of great talent. I hope she will acquire more readers following the recent publication of this collection, which has a detailed and fascinating introduction by Kate Macdonald, and includes much information about Faith and her life. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of  Shiny New Books

Faith Compton Mackenzie, Tatting and Mandolinata, (Handheld Press, 2024). 978-1912766840, 276pp., paperback original. 

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  1. This sounds like a marvellous collection, Harriet – another winner from Handheld!

  2. My brother’s favourite novel is Whisky Galore! Is this another instance of a talented wife being obscured by her more famous husband? But anything Barbara Pym-ish, even twisted, appeals to me! Great review, Harriet.

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