“There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and Papa were ever going to speak to each other again.”
At times, this is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. It’s slightly overlong at times, and given that there’s two more books in the series, I don’t think that’s going to change. The book is a roman a clef by way of a bildungsroman. I don’t know how much of it directly based on Rebecca West’s life, but if enough is, it’s amazing. The family is comprised of two parents, an English father and a Scottish mother, three girls, and a young boy. The boy is named for the father’s long-dead younger brother who died young, and our narrator Rose is the middle girl. She has a warm but cutting jealousy of her older sister Cordelia who among other things spends all her time practicing the piano and reading scores, even though Rose believes she’s dreadfully awful at music. The family is on the straits as Father is bad with money and worse at being a productive citizen. At the beginning of the novel they are moving Scotland, where they have a largish estate and many servants to London where they will have a flat with almost no servant. This loss of status is felt most strongly by Mother in terms of status anxiety, but the disruption and loss of privileges and material good is felt throughout the children. Perhaps only the near-innocent youngest boy Richard Quin is there a kind of cheery optimism and sense of adventure about the whole thing. Even that gets tested late in the novel when he too is becoming aware of the cracks in the family.
At times the book is deeply sad in the dramatic irony kind of way in which adult readers understand what the young narrator does not, but the petty family squabbles, especially between sisters more than makes up for that with moments of intense hilarity.
This is not one of those moments, but a good taste of the humor and writing:
“I at once saw that Rosamund’s papa ware real trouble. His head, so long as he kept it sticking round the door, was very nice. His face was long and fair, and his temples were delicately indented; his nostrils were thin as paper and his lips were pursed as if he were keeping a secret. If there had been a fourth real poet at the time of Byron and Shelley and Keats, he might have looked like that. But as soon a he saw who was in the kitchen and brought his body round the doorpost he changed. He canted his head on one side and surveyed us with a wide-eyed leer, while his mouth gaped open, the lips drawn close to this teeth and lifted at the corners, as if he would have said something impudent and amusing but was prevented by a flow of saliva.”