Almost exactly one year ago, I read Rebecca West’s terrific short modernist novel, The Return of the Soldier. I enjoyed it so much that I knew there would be more West in my future, and when several commenters recommended The Fountain Overflows, her highly autobiographical novel of the gifted, eccentric Aubrey family, I put it on my list at once. And they were right! It was wonderful. Most of the time when I post here, I want to think about how the book I read was made, and place it in context, and weigh the writing, and work at it a bit. Some of the time, I want to convince you to read it. Rarely, I want to press a copy into your hands and sit by you on the sofa until you’ve started reading it. This was one of those books: a complete pleasure from beginning to end. As I read, I kept thinking of people I knew, family and friends and bloggers, who absolutely must read The Fountain Overflows. Let me tell you a bit about it.
The book is told from the perspective of Rose Aubrey, who lives in extremely shabby gentility with her family: her mother and father, her two older sisters Cordelia and Mary, and her younger brother Richard Quin. They are constantly on the edge of complete financial breakdown, because Rose’s father, a writer, is totally improvident: indefatigable in noble causes that have nothing whatsoever to do with him, he gambles his own family’s money and reputation without concern. Rose’s mother, formerly an extremely talented concert pianist, gives the children music lessons and contrives food, clothes, fuel, and school fees the best she can.
But the children are mostly not troubled by their shabby furniture and worn-out dress. They have other things to sustain them. There is a constant, underlying sense that everything will be all right in the end: their parents are intelligent and interesting people; they have books to fall into; they are musically gifted and have a future before them; they have made-up animals in the garden (as I hope all well-regulated children do.) It is a family with a tremendous amount of self-reliance and inner resources. At one point, the family has taken in the daughter of a woman suspected of killing her husband, and they are doing everything they can to be kind to her, but she has had such a different upbringing that it is not going off very well:
There spread before Papa and Mamma a terrible nullity of which they had not known before. Nancy sat all day about the house, exercising what was evidently a practised ability for doing nothing. She did not want to read the newspapers, or any books. She had never read the Alices or the Jungle Books or Treasure Island or Jackanapes or The Secret Garden. Mamma was aware that there were many people who read what she called trashy books, but it was news to her that there were people who read nothing at all.[…]
“What did they do all day, sitting in that house?” I heard Mamma asking Papa one evening at this time, horror in her voice, as if she spoke of naked savages, pent in their darkened huts while filth and tropical disease and fear of jungle gods consumed them.
“God knows, God knows,” he answered. “This is the new barbarism.”
Occasionally there are crises, when Rose’s father insults all his friends and must start afresh to find income, but the family love and mutual understanding does not suffer. Indeed, it is strong enough to take others in: cousins Constance and Rosamund, who are as beloved as sisters; a local family involved in a sensational murder case; the friends who support Rose’s father.
West writes this book with tremendous force and acuity. It’s written from the perspective of a child, but with the additional wisdom of the adult who’s writing the novel. The combination of the two make for prose that is acerbic, almost painfully clear-eyed, often funny, and full of observations that resonate as absolutely true. Somehow West never lost track of exactly what it is like to be a child, or at least this sort of child. It is absolutely free of sentiment, but there is a deep humanity there that many authors forget exists in children. Here Rose is meeting her cousin Rosamund for the first time:
She had a deeply indented upper lip, there was a faint cleft in her chin, and I knew from everything about her that she was in the same case as myself, as every child I liked, she found childhood an embarrassing state. We did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people whom we often recognized as stupid and horrid, and we could not earn our own livings, or, because of our ignorance, draw fully on our own powers. But Rosamund bore her dissatisfaction mildly. There was a golden heaviness about her face, to look on it was like watching honey drop slowly from a spoon.
There isn’t much of what you might call a narrative arc, though there are plenty of events to move the book along. The closest thing is that the oldest daughter, Cordelia, is what Rose calls unmusical: she can play the violin, her hands are supple, she even has perfect pitch, but her sense of the music is entirely absent. She is a complete torment to her musically gifted family, and won’t hear a word against what she believes to be her own genius. The resolution of this plot line is interesting, and (I think) quite true to life.
I want everyone to read this book. It was an absolute delight. I wanted to read it quickly, so I could have more and more of it, and also slowly, because I knew it couldn’t go on forever, as I would have preferred.
There are two sequels to this book, that West apparently tinkered with for a long time and was never happy with, and that were published posthumously. I feel wary of reading them. Has anyone read them? Could they possibly be as good as the original? Tell me, because if they are I will snap them up immediately.