0

One From the Archive: ‘The Triumphant Footman’ by Edith Olivier ***

Originally published in 2014.

9781447263517The Triumphant Footman is one of Edith Olivier’s five novels, and was first published in 1930.  The volume has been dedicated to war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The Triumphant Footman takes place largely within the upper-class circles in Italy.  A lot of the plot within the novel revolves around the mischievous half-French footman of the Lemaurs, Alphonse Biskin.  A case of mistaken identity ensues, confusing society to its limits, and all of which he is responsible for.  This element of the story is farcical at times, and causes the whole to become almost a comedy of manners in its consequent tone and style.

Olivier sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning: ‘Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawing-room, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the half-light.  The room became ghost-like, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts.  These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls – all of those things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window’.

This ‘little pale lady’ is Mrs Lemaur, a woman who decided to change her life whilst still in her teens: ‘When she was eighteen, she had decided that to be bedridden should be her role’.  She is the ‘little wifie’ to a Captain, who ‘liked looking for bargains, and he often found them’.  Both relocated to Italy – Florence, to be exact – some decades ago.  Olivier builds her characters by using the finest of details; Mrs Lemaur, for example, has a ‘little face’ which is ‘puckered and wrinkled in criss-cross squares, and the corners of her mouth were drawn down till they seemed about to slip off from the two sides of her chin’.  Captain Lemaur is a shadowy being in comparison to the descriptions of his wife; she ‘had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she deserved neither of these’.  Mrs Lemaur is definitely the most interesting creation in the book, and none of Olivier’s other characters feel quite as vivid or memorable as she does.

The Triumphant Footman is interesting and somewhat unexpected, and one cannot help but think that it would be a marvellous addition to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The plot, whilst not always as evenly paced as it could have been, has been well crafted, and although The Triumphant Footman is by no means Olivier’s best novel, it still intrigues.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady’ by Edith Olivier ****

Originally published in 2014.

Edith Olivier is most famous for her enchanting 1927 novel The Love Child, which can be found upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  A lot of her other work has sadly faded into obscurity, but much of her canon has thankfully been reissued by Bello, making her charming books available to a wide audience once more.

9781447272007Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady was first published in 1943.  It is a non-fiction account of a woman named Miss Nightingale, who lived in Olivier’s village.  The preface both intrigues and sets the tone of the piece from the first: ‘Like most living creatures, Miss Emma Nightingale possessed two distinct personalities. In her case, they were the Emma-by-day, and the Emma-by-night…  Miss Nightingale went early to bed; and once there, she lay quietly, unaware that she was, in some curious way, quite another person from the familiar figure known to her neighbours as they met daily in the village street’.

Olivier received the fifty to sixty notebooks which Miss Nightingale – the goddaughter of George du Maurier –  had kept throughout her life during a wartime ‘Salvage Week’.  On getting rid of her notebooks, she told Olivier, ‘Everything is changing so much that we never need to refer to the past.  It doesn’t apply’.  The next morning, ‘the whole village was shocked by the news that Miss Nightingale had died suddenly in the night’, and Olivier commented that, ‘it seemed that she had consciously made an end’.  It was Olivier’s decision to transcribe the notebooks into the format of a coherent work of non-fiction, thus giving ‘a picture of one aspect of rural life which during the war came into being in many country places’ – the notion of becoming a landlady to various evacuees who were sent away from London, and other European cities.

Miss Nightingale’s account in Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady focuses solely upon the Second World War, and her viewpoint is set out immediately: ‘War is so antipathetic to most English people, that it was almost equally antipathetic to believe that any country could desire it’.  As well as setting out how war affected her own home, and the lives of those around her, Miss Nightingale also touches upon a lot of issues and elements which are not directly involved with war, from holidays, architecture and painting to historical figures, astrology and the great outdoors.  She was clearly so passionate about so many things, and this shines through in her writing.  She demonstrates how history related to her present, and how the war affected ordinary people such as herself.  Miss Nightingale comes across as such a kind-hearted, benevolent lady, and one can only thank Edith Olivier for publishing her charming and fascinating diaries.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier *****

Published in March 2014; the book has recently been reissued by Macmillan Bello, so go out and buy it if the following piques your interest!

‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier (Virago)

Only those who have tried to purchase this novel will know how rare it is.  It has not been in print for quite some time (my copy dates from 1982), and when I first looked for it a couple of years ago, there were no copies to be had below £80.  When I spotted this online for just £5, I simply had to have it, even with my to-read shelves groaning under the weight of unread books.  I began it on the same day that it dropped through my letterbox (after gazing at the beautiful cover for a while, of course).

This particular Virago has been introduced by Hermione Lee, who writes about the novel insightfully.  Before reading this, I had such high hopes for the book, as the few reviews which I have read of it have all been entirely positive.

The premise of The Love Child is enticing:

“At thirty-two, her mother dead, Agatha Bodenham finds herself quite alone.  She summons back to life the only friend she ever knew, Clarissa, the dream companion of her childhood.  At first Clarissa comes by night, and then by day, gathering substance in the warmth of Agatha’s obsessive love until it seems that others too can see her.  See, but not touch, for Agatha had made her love child for herself alone.  No man may approach her elfin creation of perfect beauty.  If he does, the love with summoned her can spirit her away…”

The novel is just as haunting as its plot promises.  Without giving too much away, the characters are complex and intricately crafted, and Olivier’s prose is absolutely beautiful and deserves to be savoured as far as possible.  The entirety is stunning, mesmerising and absolutely beautiful.  It certainly deserves its place on my favourites list, and is a novel which I will happily revisit each and every year to come.

Purchase from The Book Depository

7

‘Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady’ by Edith Olivier ****

Edith Olivier is most famous for her enchanting 1927 novel The Love Child, which can be found upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  A lot of her other work has sadly faded into obscurity, but much of her canon has thankfully been reissued by Bello this year, making her charming books available to a wide audience once more.

Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady was first published in 1943.  It is a non-fiction account of a woman named Miss Nightingale, who lived in Olivier’s village.  The preface both intrigues and sets the tone of the piece from the first: ‘Like most living creatures, Miss Emma Nightingale possessed two distinct personalities. In her case, they were the Emma-by-day, and the Emma-by-night…  Miss Nightingale went early to bed; and once there, she lay quietly, unaware that she was, in some curious way, quite another person from the familiar figure known to her neighbours as they met daily in the village street’.

Olivier received the fifty to sixty notebooks which Miss Nightingale – the goddaughter of George du Maurier –  had kept throughout her life during a wartime ‘Salvage Week’.  On getting rid of her notebooks, she told Olivier, ‘Everything is changing so much that we never need to refer to the past.  It doesn’t apply’.  The next morning, ‘the whole village was shocked by the news that Miss Nightingale had died suddenly in the night’, and Olivier commented that, ‘it seemed that she had consciously made an end’.  It was Olivier’s decision to transcribe the notebooks into the format of a coherent work of non-fiction, thus giving ‘a picture of one aspect of rural life which during the war came into being in many country places’ – the notion of becoming a landlady to various evacuees who were sent away from London, and other European cities.

Miss Nightingale’s account in Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady focuses solely upon the Second World War, and her viewpoint is set out immediately: ‘War is so antipathetic to most English people, that it was almost equally antipathetic to believe that any country could desire it’.  As well as setting out how war affected her own home, and the lives of those around her, Miss Nightingale also touches upon a lot of issues and elements which are not directly involved with war, from holidays, architecture and painting to historical figures, astrology and the great outdoors.  She was clearly so passionate about so many things, and this shines through in her writing.  She demonstrates how history related to her present, and how the war affected ordinary people such as herself.  Miss Nightingale comes across as such a kind-hearted, benevolent lady, and one can only thank Edith Olivier for publishing her charming and fascinating diaries.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Three Edith Olivier Novels: ‘Dwarf’s Blood’, ‘As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s’ and ‘The Seraphim Room’ **

Bello have recently reissued a lot of Edith Olivier’s work, from her autobiographical and non-fiction accounts, to the five novels which she penned during her career.  Three of those novels – Dwarf’s Blood, As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s, and The Seraphim Room – are those which I will be discussing in this review.

Dwarf’s Blood, published in 1930, begins with the death of Sir Henry Roxerby, whose home ‘had begun to go to rack and ruin long before he took to his bed…  In many places, the undergrowth had invaded the road, almost obliterating it, and now and again, a rotting bough lay, barring the way’.  Sir Henry, Olivier tells us, ‘had outlived most of his contemporaries, and he had never had any friends’.  Also without a wife or any offspring, the former Senior County magistrate’s estate is passed onto his young Australian nephew, Nicholas: ‘He came to England determined to find in it the purpose of his life, and the outlet for his fortune.  He turned his back upon the long misery of his youth’.  He soon – rather predictably, it could be said – marries into the local gentry when he weds a young girl named Alethea.  Until the birth of his second child, Nicholas is perfectly content.  When Hans is born, however, things take a turn for the worse for the Roxerbys.  Hans is found quite early on to have ‘dwarf’s blood’, and Nicholas is horrified; he finds himself quite unable to love a child who carries a reminder of a dark family secret.

Dwarf’s Blood has been deemed a ‘vivid work of realism’, and in some ways, it certainly is.  In her familial saga, Olivier exemplifies the cruelty which humans can have toward one another even when genetics are involved, and creates a moral tale of sorts.  She talks about the ancestry and feuds within the Roxerby family, and the entirety of the novel is very character driven.  The element of darkness and foreboding is well built, and becomes the strongest element of the story.  Whilst Dwarf’s Blood is nicely written, it does take quite a while to get going, and some of the sections of the novel seem a little superfluous to the whole as it goes on.

As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is quite a different novel to Dwarf’s Blood, both in its themes and style.  It is an earlier work, and was published in 1928, just one year after Olivier’s stunning The Love ChildAs Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s tells of two young girls – one is the Jane of the novel’s title, and the other is Angela Markham, who uses Jane’s grandmother’s house – ‘living, as she did, in the only other important house in the village’ – as a means of measuring distances.  The initial description of Jane is vivid: ‘She made an unforgettable picture against the sky, – a thin little figure with very long legs and very short skirts.  Her hair, the colour of honey, tossed about her face, which was always strangely pale, like a little white flame, vivid for all its pallor’.

The most interesting part of As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is the way in which vast differences have been shown between Jane and Angela.  Jane is ‘haughty’, often judgemental and continually putting herself first – ‘When her father came in and began to talk to her mother, she ran into the garden and lived her own life.  She was not interested in grown-up people and she knew that they were not interested in her, for in that family, children had not yet become the fashion’ – whilst Angela is kindly and always strives to do those things which are morally correct.  Jane certainly takes after her grandmother, who is rather a feisty and headstrong character: ‘there was not a trace of fragility about her…  She seemed to have made a complex scheme of life as she thought it should be lived, and into this inflexible scheme those who lived about her must fit themselves or go’.

As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is a quaint novel, once more very focused upon its protagonists rather than its plot.  It is filled to the brim with such things as governesses, countryside walks, the casting off of Victorian life, schoolrooms, ‘coming out’ balls, and the continual division between children and adults.  In this way, the novel is very of its time.  It is nicely written on the whole, but it is nowhere near as compelling as it could have been.  The plot – what little there often is of it – runs along quite nicely, but there is nothing overly striking or memorable within it.  As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s echoes Jane Austen’s work in terms of its wealth of characters and their very proper personalities.  The use of the third person perspective also sadly makes the whole feel a little flat.

The Seraphim Room was Olivier’s final novel, published in 1932. Its protagonist is a Dean named Mr Chilvester.  Unlike Dwarf’s Blood and As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s, The Seraphim Room feels almost factual in its prose style at times.  It is filled with highly matter-of-fact observations about things – for example, the properties which are owned by the Dean and Chapter, and how they are used.  It is fair to say that The Seraphim Room does not really grab the attention of the reader, being, as it is, very character-focused and quite repetitive.  Whilst the novel does take into account many elements of importance in Victorian life, it chiefly discusses money and religion.

The Seraphim Room is very of its time, to the extent that its thoughts and opinions often seem callous in the modern world.  Of Dean Chilvester’s daughter Lilian, for example, who was crippled at birth, ‘being only a girl, meant nothing to him’.  As a character, he is quite cold and cruel about remarrying after Lilian’s mother dies; he does so merely in the hope that a son would prevent his house passing away from his family after his death.  There is sadly nothing within The Seraphim Room which sets the novel apart from others of the same tone and period.  Oddly, Olivier’s talent as a writer – which was so prevalent in The Love Child – seems to have diminished as her career went on.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Wiltshire’ by Edith Olivier ***

Wiltshire, another of Edith Olivier’s non-fiction works, was published posthumously in 1951.  In it, Olivier sets out the history and importance of her beloved county, from its beginnings in the year 878: ‘In that year, at the season of Whitsuntide, when, as the Bible tells us, “Kings go forth to battle”, there were two nights and a day during which the future of all England hung upon what happened on that little lost piece of land, a tiny island somewhere in the Wylye River’.

Olivier encompasses the tumultuous history of her beloved county, from King Alfred to Defoe’s tour through Wiltshire, and from the historical risks of travelling to old-fashioned building materials and methods.  Throughout, she has used quotes from different works which help to set out or back up her points, from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to the beliefs of local historians, who had already written about the county in depth.

Olivier takes into account many different elements of life in Wiltshire – local sports, the accent and dialect, antiquities, the founding of the city of Salisbury, the building of boroughs within the county, the importance of market towns, the expansion of hamlets to villages, and the grand houses which still remain today, for example.

Wiltshire is, on the whole, nicely written, but it is certainly more suited to those who call Wiltshire their home; its history holds some general appeal, but it is very focused – as its title, of course, suggests – upon one county and its inhabitants.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

‘The Triumphant Footman’ by Edith Olivier ***

The Triumphant Footman is one of Edith Olivier’s five novels, and was first published in 1930.  The volume has been dedicated to war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The Triumphant Footman takes place largely within the upper-class circles in Italy.  A lot of the plot within the novel revolves around the mischievous half-French footman of the Lemaurs, Alphonse Biskin.  A case of mistaken identity ensues, confusing society to its limits, and all of which he is responsible for.  This element of the story is farcical at times, and causes the whole to become almost a comedy of manners in its consequent tone and style.

Olivier sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning: ‘Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawing-room, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the half-light.  The room became ghost-like, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts.  These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls – all of those things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window’.

This ‘little pale lady’ is Mrs Lemaur, a woman who decided to change her life whilst still in her teens: ‘When she was eighteen, she had decided that to be bedridden should be her role’.  She is the ‘little wifie’ to a Captain, who ‘liked looking for bargains, and he often found them’.  Both relocated to Italy – Florence, to be exact – some decades ago.  Olivier builds her characters by using the finest of details; Mrs Lemaur, for example, has a ‘little face’ which is ‘puckered and wrinkled in criss-cross squares, and the corners of her mouth were drawn down till they seemed about to slip off from the two sides of her chin’.  Captain Lemaur is a shadowy being in comparison to the descriptions of his wife; she ‘had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she deserved neither of these’.  Mrs Lemaur is definitely the most interesting creation in the book, and none of Olivier’s other characters feel quite as vivid or memorable as she does.

The Triumphant Footman is interesting and somewhat unexpected, and one cannot help but think that it would be a marvellous addition to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The plot, whilst not always as evenly paced as it could have been, has been well crafted, and although The Triumphant Footman is by no means Olivier’s best novel, it still intrigues.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘Country Moods and Tenses’ by Edith Olivier ***

First published in 1941, Country Moods and Tenses is an interesting non-fiction account of grammar and the English language, and how both relate to life within the countryside – that of Olivier’s native Wiltshire, to be exact.  Olivier has begun her account by setting out her ‘grammarless education’, which she feels has debarred her ‘from the familiar use of a good many attractive and expressive words’.

Throughout, it is clear that Olivier is passionate about the subject of which she is writing; she speaks of her delight of perusing the dictionary in her introduction, and discusses such grammatical elements as the infinitive and the imperative, all the while relating them to the experiences of her family and neighbours in their small English village.  Olivier uses the examples of other writers and experts in certain fields to further reinforce the points which she makes.

In Country Moods and Tenses, Olivier continually demonstrates the differences between town and country living – for example, ‘the store cupboard, so easily filled in London by the benificence of Messrs. Fortnum and Mason.  To them it is merely a matter of indifferently turning to another shelf and with equal facility they will hand over the counter Guaya Jelly, Hymettus Honey or Sloe Gin.  But in the country, a May frost may put an end to all hopes of strawberry jam for the year, and a wet September can ruin the blackberry harvest’.  Of the utmost importance, she believes, is never to take anything for granted.  One gets the impression that she would like city folk to adopt the mentality of the countryside, where the communities which she describes are grateful for everything which Mother Nature offers them.

Country Moods and Tenses is both quaint and charming.  Olivier presents an interesting and quite original mixture of travelogue and linguistics.  The subjects which she writes about range from public work to literary pilgrimages, and are diverse enough to hold something for every reader.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘Without Knowing Mr Walkley’ by Edith Olivier ****

Without Knowing Mr Walkley is the autobiography of author Edith Olivier.  It was first published in 1938, and, as one might expect, spans her entire life, from her idyllic Wiltshire childhood to philosophical musings on those around her and the world in which she lived.

The prologue of Without Knowing Mr Walkley is quite charmingly called the ‘Preamble’.  In this, Olivier vividly evokes the latter part of the 1800s in which she grew up.  She has a marvellous way of placing herself back into her childhood, and describing the wonder which comes when viewing it in retrospect: ‘(except for Christmas Day) it is always summer in one’s childhood)’, for example.  One feels immediately that rather than shunning the way in which she behaved as a child, or becoming disgruntled with aspects of her early life, Olivier holds such an understanding for her young self.  From the very first, Olivier talks of the wonderful adventures which she and her sister Mildred had in and around the rectory which they called home: ‘In every house, an immense amount of space is lost to the grown-up people who never sit in cupboards…  When I remember Wilton Rectory, I think of it as larger by all those cupboards than it ever could have been for my parents, who only sat in the rooms’.

Mr Walkley, of the novel’s title, was the dramatic critic for The Times when Olivier was young: ‘and in those days it was my passionate desire to become an actress’.  As well as discussing her childhood dreams, Olivier touches upon so many elements of Victorian and Edwardian life – for example, money and the divide between rich and poor, eccentrics, prayer and churchgoing, entertainment, the elderly, common expressions, and her first years as a student at Oxford University.  She then moves forward in history, encompassing such things as the Women’s Land Army during the First World War, treaties, the death of King George V, and her writing career.

Throughout, Olivier’s descriptions are lovely, and she sets her scenes beautifully. Without Knowing Mr Walkley
is an interesting and wonderfully crafted memoir, which should be read by anyone who has an interest in Edith Olivier or her work.

x

Purchase from The Book Depository