There is a good novel buried in this sprawling, self-indulgent fantasy of irony and class consciousness. Rachel Ferguson wrote A Footman for the Peacock (1940) right at the beginning of the Second World War: it was her eighth novel and fourteenth book. Comparing it to its immediate predecessor, Alas Poor Lady (1937), one can only assume that the frustration and gloom of impending war had addled her sense of proportion. Her earlier novel, the triumphant, magnificent The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931) is now her most well-known novel due to the Virago reprint of 1988, and rightly so: it is a work of pure fantastical genius. Alas Poor Lady, also snapped up by the unerring eye of a successful reprint publisher, is one of the novels that epitomises Persephone Books’ project of rescuing unjustly neglected novels for their literary quality and the gifts of their social commentary. Both novels are written with control and sensitivity, matching Ferguson’s precise observations to her magical ability to conjure pathos out of the ludicrous by showing the power of human feelings over all social considerations.
Compared to these novels, A Footman for the Peacock fails embarrassingly. I haven’t always been too enthusiastic with what the Dean Street Press have kindly sent me to review (A Chelsea Concerto was the dazzling exception). My impression has been that either my taste in books is very different to their collective taste, or they are reprinting novels that other reprint houses are not bothering with for good reason. Of course, it could just be me. Earlier reviews of A Footman for the Peacock had me wondering if I had read the same book. But its publicity is also bizarrely at odds with what I actually read, so much so that I seriously considered whether their back cover blurb had been written by a marketing person who had been told about the book, but hadn’t read it for themselves. This is the first offender:
‘The peacock … Waiting? Listening? Guiding. No. Signalling.’
What utter, utter tosh. There is a peacock. It prowls the lawns of the English country mansion, Delaye, and keeps an eye on the Roundelay family and its servants. It attacks Angela, the younger Roundelay daughter, when she offers it half a hard-boiled egg, but the alert reader will already have spotted the reason for that when it occurs. The peacock has a close connection to the eighteenth-century family’s running footman Thomas Picocke, who died bloodily in the top attic bedroom, due to his murderously exhausting job. It waits, presumably; listens, possibly; but it does not guide, and it certainly does not signal. As for the succeeding line, ‘may be aiding the Nazi cause’, this interpretation comes from the original Furrowed Middlebrow review of this novel, which is a straightforward misreading. It’s undoubtedly useful in the blurb, to pull in readers attracted to a plot about Nazi avian espionage. The niche readership will be disappointed, but they’ll already have bought the book.
Other assertions in the blurb may be due to the Furrowed Middlebrow’s knowledge of British social and literary history. It says that the novel was ‘controversial when first published’: well, no, it wasn’t. It was peculiar, Margery Allingham gave it a ‘guarded’ review (not unusual for her), and Punch loved it. If there is any evidence to prove the ‘controversial’ tag (so useful for whipping up sales), Dean Street Press don’t prove it.
The next phrase mentions ‘a loathsome upper-crust family dodging wartime responsibility’. Yes, they’re upper-class; yes, they’re dodging war-time responsibility by resisting billeting of evacuees, but most novels of the war written before the Blitz will depict this. So are the Roundelays ‘loathsome?’ No, I don’t think they are. Ferguson spends the entire novel making us feel how dear and charming and nice these people are, as well as vague, eccentric and exceedingly old-fashioned. She creates people, and shows us their lives, makes them live with human preoccupations, tirednesses, aggravations and struggles, and then presents them in wartime, struggling to cope as everybody had to cope, in peculiarly individual ways. Not loathsome, no: just human. The blurb and I will have to disagree on this one.
Getting into Ferguson’s plot, the novel’s fantasy elements of the strange other-worldly village of Rohan, Angela’s shuddering sensitivity to the haunted room with the glass inscription, the mystery of Sue Privett’s relationship with the peacock, and the eighteenth-century mysteries of the running footman’s death, the sacking of Polly Privett and Marguerite Roundelay’s fatal self-exile to Revolutionary France: all these belong in a potentially excellent mystery novel that Ferguson never allowed herself to write. Instead, she clarted her plot with a slapped-on morass of witticisms, as if she were clearing out a hoard of old jokes, clever take-offs and satirical interjections (some are very good). She romps for pages and pages, sending-up high society and its ways, forgetting that she’s supposed to be writing a novel with a plot. Characters appear and then wither away, forgotten. Tag-ends of plot lines multiply as if seeded by an anxious editor, hoping to pull some of this farrago together. The chaos is frustrating, because there is so much here that could have been so good. But Ferguson decided (or perhaps just needed to get something published) to throw everything she had into the pot. It’s a mess.
The novel is ill-served by its Introduction, which is expected to cover all three Ferguson novels reprinted in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, and is presumably reprinted in all three. This approach is needlessly cheapskate, and fails the novels by only giving them half a page each. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Crawford given the space to do the job properly?
You’ll detect that my exasperation with a good novel wasted is exacerbated by the publishing decisions for this edition, and that this is not a happy review. Many of you will think this beside the point, or needlessly pernickety. But these things matter: if you’re going to do reprints, you should take them seriously as novels, not just sales opportunities, consider their merits objectively, and not fob readers off with material that is so much less than it could have been. I don’t say that A Footman for the Peacock should not have been reprinted, but I would only recommend it for Ferguson completists.