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 Child. As 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.
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