Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published in 1938, is one of Persephone’s two new additions for Autumn 2013. The novel’s preface has been written by Anne Sebba, and is both informative and well constructed. The Squire was written over a period of ‘some fifteen years’, and was informed by the births of Bagnold’s four children between 1921 and 1930. As Sebba states, ‘she [Bagnold] realised that she wanted to write not only about birth but also to explore in detail the intimate and growing relationship between the mother and her family. This, she believed, had never before been attempted in a novel’. She goes on to say, ‘most importantly, she wished to describe her own attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family’.
The squire of the book’s title is the middle aged mother of a family, whose position within it whilst her husband is away on his yearly jaunt to Bombay is as an omnipotent matriarch. She is ‘both the dispenser of punishment, and the provider of fun’, which draws parallels with Bagnold’s own life. The squire, Sebba states, has been ‘cast in the same mould’ as her creator.
Bagnold sets the scene marvellously from the first. The opening line paints an incredibly vivid picture: ‘From the village green where the Manor House stood, well-kept, white-painted, the sea was hidden by the turn of the street. The house’s front, pierced with windows, blinked as the sun sank… Sunset and moonrise were going on together.’ The house itself is like a character, and Bagnold treats it with the utmost respect throughout. She sets the scene further when she writes the following: ‘The house, now masterless for a month, was nearly, too, without a mistress, for she, its temporary squire, was heavy with child, absent in mind’.
In her confinement, the squire spends much time with the four children she already has – Jay, Lucy, Boniface and Henry. The house is staffed and the children have their own nurse, who ‘felt pride in her heavy squire, her argumentative, provoking squire’. Bagnold marvellously demonstrates the hierarchy of the house, even showing the disparities between the wealth of servants who are sent about the house on the merest whim. The characters are described realistically and rather originally. The squire, for example, ‘who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving’. Caroline, the squire’s neighbour and friend, is ‘lovely and restless, victim and adventurer’.
Throughout, Bagnold’s writing is beautiful and full of power. It is even haunting sometimes – for example, within the description she gives of the unborn baby: ‘its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant… secret eyes, a diver passed in albumen, ancient and epic… as old as a pharoah in its tomb’. The novel is a quiet one in terms of the events it describes, and the little action within it is very focused upon the confines of the house. The strength of it lies in Bagnold’s writing and characters, as well as the way in which she portrays relationships so well, particularly between the young siblings. She is an incredibly perceptive author, and this is a marvellous book with which to begin reading her oeuvre. Its complexities are great, and Bagnold is a master in things left unsaid. Some of the scenes which she captures, particularly those which involve the new baby, are incredibly vivid. It goes without saying too that the Persephone edition has been beautifully produced, endpapers and all.