I took a while to get into this sturdy family saga: it was blocking the reading pile for weeks while I struggled to pay it proper attention. Then something clicked, and the peculiarities of The Fountain Overflows (1956) began to attract my attention. At first I thought that it was rather like Rose Macaulay’s Told By An Idiot (1923), for its late Victorian family with a profoundly, alarmingly unreliable pater familias. Then I thought that it was rather more like Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931), with its magical realism, the supernatural in daily life, and a wildly eccentric family life bound by love and solidarity between mother and children. There’s something very Edith Nesbit about the south London setting, and rather Wellsian too, in its political anger.
This was not at all what I had expected of Rebecca West, that formidable monument of literary magnificence (The Return of the Soldier, 1918; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, 1941), feminist criticism and political acumen who survived H G Wells and two world wars to become one of the great British literary dames. The Fountain Overflows is FUNNY. It is also heart-breaking and bizarre and painful, and a tremendous, devouring read. On finishing it I immediately ordered its two sequels, and am saving them for long and uninterrupted train journeys.
The Aubrey family is managed with gay confidence and hope by Mamma, the former concert pianist praised by Brahms, who is bringing up her children to be musicians because musicianship is the only way of life worth considering. Papa is largely absent, often selling off their possessions to pay the bills, because he is a journalist of influence, genius and no tact. He has great power but very rarely any employment, and accepts with a sneer the London editor’s job offered by his patron, Mr Morpurgo, to Mother’s relief. Then she finds that he has sold all her Aunt Clara’s furniture from their Edinburgh home.
The girls practice their music for hours each day with placid concentration. However, Cordelia, the eldest, is not musical, and cannot understand why her violin practice sends the family out of earshot. Her performance as the talented eldest sister who will save the family from destitution in the face of their beloved father’s wayward neglect make her a desperate figure; everyone else thinks she is marvellous, while her mother and sisters know her inabilities too well. Mary, meanwhile, writes fugues for pleasure and copies fingerings by Liszt from Mother’s old scores. Rose gets into emotional states, sees and hears the ghost horses in their new garden, and endures the poltergeist in Cousin Constance’s horrible house in a much poorer part of London. Baby brother Richard Quin is a smiling child of endurance, loving everything and everyone, and tumbling through the family crises with a gloriously reassuring equanimity.
But outside the charmed happiness of the loving family relationships we encounter very dark things. There is growing intimacy between Cordelia and her wilfully ignorant teacher Miss Beevor, who worships her talent and leads her astray. Cousin Constance’s vindictive husband Jock is a monstrously professional Scot and a ruined violinist. The rich and dissatisfied Mrs Phillips believes Rose’s casual fortune-telling at her daughter’s overblown birthday party, which leads to a death in the neighbourhood. Cordelia is treated with a cruelty that shows the damage done by being too weak to tell the truth. Darkness crouches all around this family, yet the Aubreys survive like a soap bubble in the wind: miraculously and delightfully.
The soap bubble is what the cover of the latest reprint suggests, in the fashionable silhouette style (hopelessly out of keeping with the period of the novel) that Virago is affecting at present for its reprints aimed at the women’s market. I much prefer the denser and more meaningful portraits of the earlier Virago editions, that suggest intelligence and richness rather than a thin sugar coating. The Fountain Overflows is far more intense than that cover suggests; don’t be misled.