These two novels are the sequels to West’s The Fountain Overflows (1957), a saga about an eccentric and musical Aubrey family in London from the Edwardian period to the Depression. I really loved The Fountain Overflows, but I’m not so sure about its sequels. This may be because they were incomplete on West’s death, and were published thirty years later by Virago, collated from her notes and drafts. They are too discursive: they read as fictionalised history spiced up with some light plotting, and some tremendous extracts from West’s own life.
This Real Night (why choose that title? it makes no sense) appeared in 1984 . It keeps the reader’s attention with needle-sharp moments where ugliness or unkindness or malignancy breaks through the magic family circle in which love and devotion are strong. The characters with whom we are expected to sympathise – Mamma, Mary, Rose and their housekeeper and cook Kate, who can read the future in a bucket of water – are magically, instinctually certain that their views are the only possible way for anyone of integrity to think. Cousin Rosamund and brother Richard Quin are not so sure, because they live in the world, rather than in the house and in music. Sister Cordelia is beyond the family pale because she is appalled at their eccentricities, and poverty, and inflicts her self-absorption and maladroitness on all around her. But when she marries, her blundering effect is blunted, and she becomes almost normal, so much so that Rose’s story becomes suspect, and we ask how reliable she really is as a narrator.
Rose’s subjectivity becomes even stronger in Cousin Rosamund (1985), as she experiences great passions of anger, lust, distress and joy, dragging the reader into her misaligned perceptions, and then out again into the dispassionate narrative mode like a diver surfacing for breath. Rose also becomes far less certain of what is right and wrong, and much of this novel consists of conversations, with people telling her, and others, of what is happening. This discursivity is skilfully done, but neither novel has the power of The Fountain Overflows. Magic persists, appearing lightly but distinctly at moments of great grief or passion. The protracted and painful death of Mamma is a mystical experience when Rosamund is her nurse, transmuted by experience and a woolly kind of curtaining-off of the bodily realities of pain. Rosamund’s ghastly marriage is as inexplicable as it is cruel. The Dog and Duck at Cookham on the Thames becomes a refuge of perfect food and family love, slowly turning its inhabitants into archetypal figures of myth. There is something very Stanley Spencer about their lives.
I’m sorry if none of this is very specific about plot, and event, because there is damn-all plot in Cousin Rosamund, and not much either in The Real Night. Life happens, people marry good or bad people, concerts are played and characters are judged by their capacity to appreciate or understand serious classical performances. Two new characters gave me hope that the sequels might recover the purpose that drives The Fountain Overflows, but they flounder in the wash of Rose’s perception. Nancy’s husband Os Bates in This Real Night is a marvellous Wellsian caricature who knows the science he has been taught, but doesn’t understand or feel it. Avis Jenkinson in Cousin Rosamund is working-class musical genius with zero tact and a talent for saying inconvenient truths. Her innocent presence sublimates some vicious depictions of corrupt 1920s society into clowns and capering monsters, making them, ultimately, no-one of importance. The saga fizzles out with a dubious reassurance that the people we are expected to be attracted to are financially secure due to hitherto forgotten investments. I’d rather have had more magic.