Rachel Ferguson’s A Footman for the Peacock: a hatchet job

ferguson-1There 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.

Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s
Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s

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.

Monica Dickens, One Pair of Feet

The lovely chirpy Penguin cover on my mum's bookshelf, no hint of tragedy, just the promise of jolly comic mishaps
The lovely chirpy Penguin cover on my mum’s bookshelf, no hint of tragedy, just the promise of jolly comic mishaps

Today’s letter is D, for Monica Dickens. She’s the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, and she too was very prolific, publishing about 30 novels and memoirs, including the Follyfoot horse stories. I’m not very interested in horse novels, so I didn’t discover Monica Dickens until I found her on my mother’s bookshelf some time in my teens.

One Pair of Feet was published in 1942. It’s a novel-memoir, in that it’s fiction, but based on her experiences training as a nurse during the Second World War. Like all good funny books it draws its humour from the infinite variety of the human character. Like all good comedies, in the classical sense, it is not afraid to show the nasty side of people, and the terrible aspects of life. Working in a hospital puts you close to the edges of life, but you might think that writing about working in a hospital in wartime would tip the balance of humour and tragedy, and make this a pretty gloomy novel. But somehow, she manages to keep the war in the background. Air raids happen elsewhere, and bomb and burns victims are brought in, but so are motorbike accidents, and gastric cases, and common broken bones. Nurse Dickens’ ward had to be on standby for hours, expecting the dramatic arrival of wounded bomb victims during the Blitz, only to receive a flock of homeless old men ejected from their nursing home. Rationing is important, but not actually mentioned. Instead, there’s only one pot of jam left in Sister’s cupboard to last the ward for 2 weeks. Nurses scramble to eat leftovers on the plates, but this is because they are always hungry, and always tired, rather than because there’s a shortage of food. The hospital food appears to have been horrible, mostly stodge, but the exhausted nurse has no palate, only hunger.

Slightly later 1960s cover, less fun, more irony
Slightly later 1960s cover, less fun, more irony

I love the descriptions of nursing in the 1940s: they seem so archaic and domestic. Nurse Dickens sews splints onto broken limbs, but worries about her herringbone stitches not being approved by Sister rather than whether the splint will keep the bones in place. She is perpetually cooking small meals for special patients, and cutting up bread and butter for the patients’ teas, as well as scrubbing all the surfaces Sister can find. Occasionally she has to check a syringe, or struggle with a drip, but she makes beds more often than anything else. As Dickens says, nursing is much more about hard graft than wafting about saving lives by the power of a uniform. When she works in the private wards she is no more than a slave parlourmaid, with hardly any nursing knowledge required. All this compelling domestic detail leavens the medical details. She makes us laugh over her terror of working shifts in Theatre, where she gets things wrong almost all the time. But then we get told about the drama of perky Mr Siddons nearly choking to death on the anaesthetic, because the anaesthetist didn’t bother telling him what kind of gas he was going under; and then the exasperation of the surgeon who needed to get to a Caesarean in time. It’s the way Dickens contrasts her stories, since she can write in so many different kinds of humour.

vintage 1940s edition? Looks a bit South Pacific to me.
vintage 1940s edition? Looks a bit South Pacific to me.

Set against all the stories that make me laugh out loud spontaneously are the sudden, unstressed tragedies. The torture of Maisie’s broken legs in traction is made worse because Nurse Dickens can hear her sobbing in the night and can’t do anything to help the pain. Saving Granny Chisholm’s life by wrestling with her blood pressure all night, and persuading the junior night surgeon to give her an intravenous drip is uplifting and exhausting. Knowing that Irene Hicks won’t be able to have another baby after the abortionist killed her first one, is agonising. This is why we need the comedy. Dickens knew that if the book were filled with the edges of life, of deaths and babies and near misses, it would be pretty unbearable.

Each time I read this novel I am appalled, and fascinated, by the petty tyrannies of the hospital system, and the bizarre dictatorships on the wards, historical though they are now. How can so many nasty, petty human beings exist, and why are so many of them women? Reading the conditions under which the nurses work, it seems quite obvious that a constant lack of sleep and dreadful food, and being treated like schoolgirls, make them grumpy and snappy. Oddly, the many portraits of vile people are the bits I want to read again. My favourites are the patients who try to make themselves interesting by causing trouble for the nurses, and the monstrous ward sisters who either do nothing or everything, and complain about the nurses. Delphine Lorrimer is the world’s most selfish nurse, as well as the most glamorous, and (disgracefully) can’t hold her drink. In contrast, there are the darlings, the people who make nursing worth doing. I love the cheerful old roué in the private room who talks perpetually of wild goings on in his youth, and drops hints of planned seductions, but when an old girlfriend comes to see him for a special romantic tea, he can hardly make his wobbling legs walk to meet her.

Mermaid Press edition using cutting-edge b/w photograph of aching nursing feet
Mermaid Press edition using cutting-edge b/w photograph of aching nursing feet

Stepping back a bit, this novel is an unusual picture of women’s wartime living. It’s unusual because it’s about real hard work, and being in a treadmill system with almost no personal freedom, rather than the more common wartime story of dithering about in a country village, which has become a fashionable revival lately. So many of these ‘me and my war experience’ novels or memoirs are about the upper classes who essentially just have trouble with the servants and can’t find enough sherry for their dinner parties. This novel is about being a servant, a state servant, and is given a fascinating twist by Dickens being from a well-off background herself. One Pair of Feet is also satisfying because it isn’t centred on a single home or family: it’s about living in a community and having to live with them. It’s still about the recognisable details of ordinary life. Nurse Dickens bicycles everywhere, and seems to keep missing her last chance to get to the one teashop in town that does lemon curd tarts on a Saturday. She goes out with servicemen, falls out with drunken Nurse Lorrimer, and rips her stockings by tripping over her bike in the dark. But, even though she is a grown woman in charge of life and death, she still has to sneak into the nurses’ dormitories through an open bathroom window after the curfew. The rules that have to be obeyed, quite apart from wartime regulations, are breathtakingly backward. No nurse may run. No nurse may go without wearing stockings. Clean caps and aprons, and the correct way of making hospital corners on a bed are more important than getting hold of a doctor when the ward needs one.

back to 1950s cosiness
back to 1950s cosiness

Nurse Dickens’ highly unusual movement between the social layers is riveting. She goes for tea with a senior consultant and his wife, whom she happens to know through her family. Sister cannot understand this: ‘But you’re only a nurse.’  She is invited to lunch in a grand house by a strange woman who stops her in the street when she’s in uniform, but she is almost too sleepy to eat because she’s just come off night shift. She can’t quite understand the graciousness of her hostess, or the distant interest of the other guests, who treat her almost like a wild animal, until she realises that this is a charitable gesture, this is her hostess’s war work, feeding a nurse to show her how nice people still live. Nurse Dickens has a perfectly nice life of her own: she goes up to London on a rare weekend off, where she has decent food, goes out with her friends, and then descends again into what must have seemed like hell, back to the day job. She loves her job, but she also hates the petty tyrannies and stupid rules that make no sense. This dichotomy, a split between love and hate, is matched by the piercingly funny writing, and the pathos laid on lightly. It’s a marvellous book.