I'll admit to feeling initial pangs of unease when I started reading Stephen Benatar's wonderful 1982 novel Wish Her Safe at Home, just re-issued last month by NYRB Classics. It's the story of Rachel and her gradual descent into an untenable fantasy world. She's also a single woman of - ahem - a certain age not too far from my own, who likes to sing Noel Coward songs and loves the movies, particularly the films of Vivien Leigh (long an idol of mine as well). This particular crystal ball was not one I wanted to be looking into. My fears were quickly dispelled however, because unlike Rachel, I certainly would never make a scene in a library or remark to the helpful librarian, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." But I digress . . .
Rachel Waring's life changes when she inherits a house in Bristol from her eccentric great-aunt. It allows her to leave her dull job and equally dreadful room-mate in London and finally have a place of her own, a real home that she can decorate to her heart's content, even if it uses up all her savings:
There was something inspiriting about the atmosphere of that house in Bristol, the almost human voice which had bidden me welcome there. It had caused a predominantly cautious person nearly to forget that such a quality existed. . . I had spent fascinated hours in one department story after another, gazing at kitchen units, bathroom fittings, track-lighting - oh, at all manner of things! I may still have been a dull woman but before I quit London and while there were still a few people left to talk to, my dullness had at least gone down a different route.
A plaque outside the house announces that a 18th century philanthropist named Horatio Gavin once lived there and Rachel decides to write his biography having found (she thinks) an oil portrait of him and hung it over her desk. Only this starts to fuel hallucinations that Horatio is actually alive in the house, madly in love with her, and when she buys a wedding dress, you know this can only end badly. And yet while she is clearly heading towards madness, one can't help finding Rachel rather lovable, even while simultaneously wincing at every step along her journey She's outspoken and definitely vocalizes every inappropriate thought that comes into her head - often to comic effect. But she hasn't had a happy life and she takes such enthusiastic delight in her momentary financial freedom and the love of her house, that you can't help cheering her on. She has such an eager, naive hunger to be liked and to find the perfect friends who will understand and appreciate her. Think of Sally from Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado meeting Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill". Much as we'd hate to admit it, there's definitely a little bit of Rachel in all of us and this makes the novel one that disturbs as much as it entertains.
The writing is absolutely wonderful; told from Rachel's point of view, her unconsciously deadpan detailing of scenes that outrage her but are horrifyingly funny to the reader, are balanced with the pathos of her loneliness and her feelings of being slighted and ignored by society. This duality is perhaps best illustrated by the two Oscar-winning Vivien Leigh roles that Rachel most identifies with - Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois; there's one brilliantly written scene where Rachel gets the chance to simultaneously embody the characters of both.
This is hands down my favourite NYRB book of the challenge so far and definitely a Dewey pick for this spring season. I absolutely loved reading it. (And for the record, I only sing Noel Coward songs in the shower).
Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster features portraits of equally lonely and mad women but is completely different in tone (and given the grimness of these lives, I'd rather go the way of Rachel). Honor Moore in her introduction likens Blackwood's writing to "Merchant Ivory from hell". The narrator recalls the time when as a teenager recovering from an illness, she was sent to stay with Great Granny Webster, ostensibly for the nearby Brighton sea air. Only she was never allowed to go to the seaside and since the windows were never opened, the health benefits of her surroundings were dubious at best. Certainly they can not have contributed to improving her mental state. All you need to know about life at Great Granny's is contained in the following sentence:
We used to eat our meals on trays in front of the fire, but the chill of those meals was increased by the fact that for reasons of economy the fire was laid but never lit.
Great Granny Webster, widowed for decades, sits silently in her uncomfortable chair, never talking about her family, and waited on by a long-suffering servant even older than she is. And yet compared to the rest of her relatives - her outwardly vivacious but delusional and suicidal Aunt Lavinia, and her unstable, mad grandmother, imprisoned in a cold, decrepit house - Great Granny is looked on almost with admiration by the narrator, who is really just a lonely girl trying to connect emotionally with her dead father (who often inexplicably liked to visit Great Granny Webster) while being shunted from one unfeeling relative to another. Often trepidatiously compared to Webster herself, when she attends her great-grandmother's funeral, she can suddenly look back and see her as "awesome". Everything, obviously is relative.
If you like your comedy chilled like a martini (and a stiff drink might be the perfect accompaniment to this tale), then this book of morose familial portraits is for you. Wear a cozy sweater for this one. Apparently the novel is quite autobiographical, and it certainly has made me interested in reading more about Caroline Blackwood. She was born into a rich family and married both the painter Lucian Freud (there's a wonderful exhibit of his etchings being displayed alongside Rembrandt's, at the AGO until May) and the poet Robert Lowell (she was living with the latter while writing Great Granny Webster). NYRB also publishes her novel Corrigan which promises to be another black comedy, and Counterpoint is publishing a collection of her short stories this month entitled Never Breathe A Word. The cover shows Freud's painting of her - the same one Robert Lowell was clutching when he died of a heart attack in the taxi cab on his way back to his first wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. And to continue our circular literary journey - NYRB will be publishing Hardwick's New York Stories in May.
Great Granny Webster made the Booker shortlist in 1977 losing out to Paul Scott's Staying On. In John Carey's introduction to Wish Her Safe at Home, he laments that he didn't push harder for it to make the shortlist when he was a Booker Judge that year. Both novels are well worth re-discovering.