One-Minute Book Reviews

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2008

Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ – A Masterwork for Its Time or for the Ages?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?

These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”

The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.

So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.

Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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