This is Vita Sackville’s West’s last novel, and it is exquisite. For once I agree with the blurb on the back of the Virago edition: ‘this haunting, elegiac tale, published the year before her death, is her last and finest novel’. I do NOT agree with Victoria Glendinning, who wrote an introduction, who says that No Signposts in the Sea ‘is not a great novel’.
We could argue over ‘great’, but I contend that No Signposts in the Sea is a novel to hold the reader spell-bound. It’s short, narrated through the quiet diary entries of Edmund Carr, who is under a sentence of death that he is keeping private from anyone on the cruise ship on which he is taking his last voyage. He knows he will die within three or four months, without much pain, and so he takes extended leave from his post as a political columnist on a famous British newspaper to travel on the same ship as Laura, a friend with whom he is slipping deeper in love, but whom he will not tell about his illness or feelings. The voyage is peaceful and uneventful, and Edmund and Laura spend their time among a small group of first-class passengers (this is the late 1950s). English reticence and cool good manners predominate, but Edmund rages silently in his diary when he grows jealous of the Colonel, who also spends time with Laura.
The novel’s charm comes from the impression of time passing as well as islands slipping by. Edmund’s realisation of his feelings, and his determination to not bind Laura to a dying man, are very gently handled. He is an attractive figure: he is not from the middle classes but a self-made man and a well-respected journalist living by his intellect and understanding of politics. There is a delightful episode where Laura is expounding on the perfect ‘laws’ for marriage, in which both parties obviously must have separate bedrooms and separate sitting rooms, to preserve their independence and freedom. Edmund gently tells her that he was born in a cottage with two bedrooms, his being a walk-in cupboard, and that the only other room was the kitchen. Laura’s embarrassment at realising that she has demonstrated some very class-based assumptions is made worse by her crashing snobbery in saying ‘I think perhaps different laws may apply for … for people living as you describe. I think perhaps their acceptance is greater than ours. The man is the wage-earner, the woman stays at home to cook and mind the children’. There speaks a character (not the author) who knows absolutely nothing about life outside her own circle and class, yet she is also a Résistance heroine, and nursed during the war. Her characterisation may feel a little inconsistent, but it rings deafeningly true.
They are elegant, refined, beautifully mannered pleasant people. Edmund’s torments of jealousy are brief, since he can force them away, his over-riding concern being that Laura must never find out about his feelings for her. They go away for a night on an island together, they stand on her private balcony at 2am, watching an electrical storm, they behave to all intents and purposes like terribly well-bred Noel Cowardian people for whom reticence is good manners, and gush is vulgar. Laura’s discussion of lesbian love as a thing she does not share but can sympathise with is written not so much as a grand statement of freedom, but as a fact of life that everyone of course must share. In that the novel is of its time, but in all other respects, for a novel written in the late 1950s, Sackville-West was really writing her memories of the 1930s, and all its social codes.