Thursday, October 15, 2015

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

In my personal pantheon of literary greatness, E.M. Forster is Jupiter, and other books, literary fiction in particular, are measured against the golden literary mean of Howards End (my perfect novel).   Of course, this is hyperbole (rhetoric?); but it's difficult not to compare anything written between 1900 and 1945ish to Forster (or sometimes Downton Abbey and occasionally Agatha Christie).  All Passion Spent lands squarely (and a bit heavily) into that box of delights, and falls short of Forsterian greatness.  But then in my literary comparisons, everything skates up to Howards End before falling off into the abyss of other novels not Forster.  At least so far.  Alan Hollinghurst has come closest.

All Passion Spent spends a lot of time in Lady Slane's head, which if I were more knowledgeable about literature, I could safely say was a Virginia Woolf sort of thing as opposed to a Forster sort of thing.  Forster spends much time throwing characters at one another, in sometimes humorous, other times tragic ways.  All Passion Spent started out that way, with a group of elderly siblings at the opposite end of their even more elderly recently-widowed mother's wishes and desires. At the very least, this had the lightest shades of Wilcox (Howards End); without the Schlegels (and the plots are never the same; just the color).   I enjoyed this much too short section immensely; it gave the book Forsterian promise.  The novel had several spikes of this at various other places; the relationship between Lady Slane and her new landlord; the millionaire miser Fitzwilliam's leaving his fortune to her.  But, as with all peaks, valleys lay beneath them.  I thought Sackville-West used Lady Slane's inner thoughts, reminiscences and musings about her artistic desires as a young fiancee and wife, were heavy handed and could have been written more deftly.  (perhaps I always want a different book, outside Howards End, which is a failing on my part, not Sackville-West's).  It does seem a shame that Sackville-West created a subset of really delightfully awful characters, and then couldn't seem to find a way to use them in a more interesting way.  The awful Wilcoxes, even the lesser ones who don't play that important of a part in Forser's novel, all breathe.  The children of Lady Slane aren't exactly paper dolls, but they don't ever fully come to life either.  They are mechanisms to move a story without breathing much life into it.

I did dog-ear one page that contained a passage that struck me, almost at the very end of the book.  Lady Slane is being unexpectedly visited by an uninvited great-granddaughter, Deborah (who shares her name), who has come to thank her for something life changing, something Lady Slane has done (I won't spoil) to propel Deborah the younger into a different, more artistic direction (that Lady Slane herself couldn't follow at the same age).  Deborah the younger is talking about "a kind of solidarity between" her grandfather, great-aunt, "and the people that grandfather and great-aunt Carrie approve of.  As though cement had been poured over the whole lot.  But the people" she likes "always seem to be scattered, lonely people - only they recognise each other as soon as they come together.  They seem to be aware of something more important than the things grandfather and great-aunt Carrie think important."  I adore this metaphor of the great-aunts and their ilk being poured over with cement, stuck in place, unable to move.  I take this metaphor even further; they aren't merely stuck in cement, but are even more like the denizens of Pompeii, frozen and dead.   Of course, Lady Slane was trapped in this same cement, and it's death (of her husband) that frees her to pursue, if not the art she wanted to do as a young, repressed lady, then at least to surround herself with the "scattered, lonely people."  Sackville-West injects hope into these last few pages; the generation of her children (I assume Deborah the younger would be approximately the same age as Sackville-West's children when she was writing this book at the time).

Does the future live up to Sackville-West's hope that art can be a noble and satisfying vocation and pursuit, particularly for women?  I would say she certainly found satisfaction and fame (notoriety?), even if she describes her milieu as scattered and lonely.  At times in our history, artists, musicians, writers have found themselves in times of societal foment (and ferment; usually brief and bright) and times of societal restraint (and repression; which can also produce great works),   Whether today is an era of one or the other, history will decide.

All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The characters that Sackville-West created, the group of delightfully awful elderly siblings who must deal with their recently-widowed and even more recently independent minded mother, were less memorable than I hoped. As the novel shrunk away from the interactions between these brothers and sisters and their mother, and into their mother's musings and recollections of her repressed artistic life as a young bride, some of the pleasure of the novel was sucked out. As a female artist herself, at this time and place in history, this was probably a very personal work for Sackville-West; but I think if those relationships had been flushed out more, this would have approached the golden mean of literature (which to me is always Howards End; I'm sure you have your own golden mean by which you measure all else). This novel has several peaks like that (the relationship between the miserly millionaire Fitzgeorge and her is one such peak); but the valleys, though probing and thought-provoking, aren't as interesting (or well written). The unexpected and uninvited visit at the end of an artistically minded great-granddaughter to her grandmother is the true center of gravity of the novel; it's well worth the reading journey to get there, where Sackville-West injects hope for the future, in which artists and writers and musicians (particularly female ones), scattered and lonely (her words) are able to freely practice their art without restraint (particularly gender-based repression). I would hazard a guess that Sackville-West would dive headfirst into the artistic world of the 21st century.

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