Hearing Distant Thunder

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A friend at college many decades ago was the daughter of a respected Kensington GP who was deeply involved in the history of the area. On one occasion when I was visiting she mentioned that her father was discreetly relieved at the recent death of a particularly eccentric and demanding patient, a novelist who, as a leading light also of the local history society, had had to be treated with especial tact.

‘Who was she?’ I asked.

‘Oh, she’s mildly famous, I think, but you’ve probably not heard of her. I wouldn’t have except that she’s been the bane of Daddy’s life. Rachel Ferguson.’

Rachel Ferguson! My absolutely favourite author from the time (aged 12 or 13) when I graduated from E. Nesbit to nibbling at books written for grown-ups (or ostensibly for grown-ups, but we will come to that). And so she was dead, and now I would never be able to meet her and tell her how much I admired the way in which she evoked the special character and atmosphere of places – Kensington in particular, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also riverside suburbs and seaside resorts, the backstage of theatres, and grand houses where the events of long ago have left their mark. As a Hearing Distant Thunder bored and lonely teenager imprisoned in a badly run girls’ boarding school, I had empathized deeply with the aching spinsterhood of Alas, Poor Lady (1937) and had longed, like the main characters of The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931), to be friends with actors, singers and comedians. But most of all I had been fascinated by A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), in which, more than any other novel of hers, the past is not dead but is both recoverable and surmountable.

In A Harp a character suggests that fragmented dead voices might be picked up – perhaps through the use of a wireless, then a relatively new invention – if one went to the right location, even if the four walls that had once contain

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A friend at college many decades ago was the daughter of a respected Kensington GP who was deeply involved in the history of the area. On one occasion when I was visiting she mentioned that her father was discreetly relieved at the recent death of a particularly eccentric and demanding patient, a novelist who, as a leading light also of the local history society, had had to be treated with especial tact.

‘Who was she?’ I asked.

‘Oh, she’s mildly famous, I think, but you’ve probably not heard of her. I wouldn’t have except that she’s been the bane of Daddy’s life. Rachel Ferguson.’

Rachel Ferguson! My absolutely favourite author from the time (aged 12 or 13) when I graduated from E. Nesbit to nibbling at books written for grown-ups (or ostensibly for grown-ups, but we will come to that). And so she was dead, and now I would never be able to meet her and tell her how much I admired the way in which she evoked the special character and atmosphere of places – Kensington in particular, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also riverside suburbs and seaside resorts, the backstage of theatres, and grand houses where the events of long ago have left their mark. As a Hearing Distant Thunder bored and lonely teenager imprisoned in a badly run girls’ boarding school, I had empathized deeply with the aching spinsterhood of Alas, Poor Lady (1937) and had longed, like the main characters of The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931), to be friends with actors, singers and comedians. But most of all I had been fascinated by A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), in which, more than any other novel of hers, the past is not dead but is both recoverable and surmountable.

In A Harp a character suggests that fragmented dead voices might be picked up – perhaps through the use of a wireless, then a relatively new invention – if one went to the right location, even if the four walls that had once contained those voices had been pulled down. Later in the novel the two central figures, brother and sister, achieve this in various historic locations, including Hampton Court and a Victorian music hall, but also, and most significantly, in the large Lowndes Square house still owned and lived in by their redoubtably unpleasant grandmother.

Here, on semi-clandestine night visits, they manage not only to hear but also eventually to see partial and ghostly re-enactments of a violent event involving the grandmother from forty years before – though the word ‘ghost’ is never actually mentioned. Brother and sister confront the grandmother about her treatment of one of her daughters, who died as a result of what had happened. The suggestion (never made quite explicit) is that, by doing so, they can help their own elder sister, who has seemed to suffer from some mysterious vulnerability, finally to put the inherited past behind her. Again, the word ‘reincarnation’ is not actually used, but there is a clear indication that this is the territory in which we are moving.

Similarly, in A Footman for the Peacock (1940), which also deals with bygone evil, there is a definite sense of a building, this time a classic country house, retaining the memory of past events in a way that affects current occupants. We begin to realize that a young man and a girl are, unknowingly, re-enacting events in past lives, or are at any rate in danger of doing so. But the story is set in the summer of 1939, and the rapidly evolving events of that summer are used to indicate breaking moulds and impending social changes which will probably save the couple from a repetition of the past.

Between the two world wars, J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, in which he conceived time to be circular rather than linear, aroused enduring interest and inspired, among other things, three plays by J. B. Priestley. It also clearly inspired Ferguson. In what is perhaps her most deeply eccentric novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, the main characters live their intimate family lives in an invented saga to do with famous people whom they do not actually know, and with the illustrious dead. Then, as if some unseen power struggle were going on, they are visited, fleetingly, by the Brontë sisters.

Fantasy here coincides with an apparent and slightly frightening supernatural reality – or does it? Is this another of the narrator’s extensive pretend games that do, sometimes, become real? The entire (all female) family are involved in a pretend game about being close friends with a famous star of the stage: then the younger sister finds herself working with him and falling half in love. They also have a game about being friends with a High Court judge and his wife, and here, too, the pretence metamorphoses improbably into a genial reality.

In A Harp in Lowndes Square the fantasy is more restrained, plausible and targeted, but certain elements, in particular Ferguson’s romantic passion for actors in general, inspired apparently by a period she spent at RADA, surface again. A matinée idol she calls Cosmo Furnival, and who surely had a real-life original, is the charming, intelligent (and safely married) object of the fictional narrator’s love. I too fell in love with him. But I was 13, when being smitten by a fictional character for the want of any flesh-and-blood alternative may be excused. It did just occur to me even then that something was not quite right. Didn’t grown-ups supposedly want something more than this? And my credulity was further stretched when, towards the end of the book, grandmother routed, dead and gone, and the Lowndes Square house reclaimed for benign parties full of old people in ‘sequinned finery’, the narrator begins seeing the by then departed Cosmo Furnival too about the place and finds herself re-enacting their earlier encounters. Still, as a teenager, I found the book, with its evocation of vanished places, scents and seasons, entirely gripping.

For Rachel Ferguson (1892–1957) was not in any general way naïve. Balked of a stage career by the outbreak of the First World War, she began her writing life as a journalist. For many years, indeed right into her sixties, she contributed to Punch, and some of her material was good enough to be collected and published in book form. She was also in youth determinedly ‘modern’ in outlook (though ‘the modern girl’ was a newspaper phrase she liked to flourish mockingly). In her teens she had been a fierce campaigner for women’s rights and longed to be a suffragette, and later she became a leading light of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Her novel Alas, Poor Lady is perhaps now her best-known one, since it has been seized on as a feminist document on the plight of superfluous Victorian unmarried daughters. But though a compelling read, it is shallower than her most distinctive works, since its portrait of a classic down-trodden, socially demoted governess is essentially a vignette stretched out to book length – a vignette that appears more tangentially and to greater effect in her other novels, including A Harp in Lowndes Square and The Brontës Went to Woolworths.

The author undoubtedly knew loneliness and insecurity in her own life; there are clear wish-fulfilment elements in her novels. Although she could be extremely funny about her beloved world of the theatre – see her pantomimic skit on village life, The Late Widow Twankey (1943) – she never seems to have achieved a close relationship within that world. She did not apparently ever have a lover, and the supportive brother-and-sister relationship in A Harp in Lowndes Square was not borne out in her own life: her only brother took off for South Africa as soon as he reached adulthood and stayed there. The unpleasant and domineering grandmother of Lowndes Square was, however, a reality. This lady, her mother’s mother, was married to a Cumberbatch (distantly related to the present-day actor) and lived in Cadogan Place. She treated her numerous children to beatings and dry bread lunches and would jeer at them if they were ill. All this was revealed in convincing detail in Ferguson’s last work, a memoir called We Were Amused, which was not published, probably wisely, till 1958, a year after her death.

By the 1950s, living in her beloved but changed Kensington and driving her doctor mad with her needy admiration (and her passion for cats), she was far from the would-be suffragette of her early years.

Like many good novelists, Ferguson seems to have understood complex issues better when she had a pen in her hand than in her daily life. This is evident in A Footman for the Peacock, where all her natural sympathies were with the right-wing owners of the country house (based on one near York, where she was actually staying when Neville Chamberlain made his we-are-now-at-war speech), but her novelist’s antennae told her this world was on the brink of dissolution. Later in the war she actually addressed, as a central theme, the subject of nostalgia and the folly of attempting to recreate past relationships or situations.

This book, Evenfield (1942), which manages to be both a loving portrayal of her childhood home and a subtle and cumulative warning that in life we should never try to go back, is regarded by some readers as her absolute best. I admire it, and also Sea Front (1954), her last full-length novel, which revisits some of the same themes in a convincing but less personal way. But for me, hopelessly hooked in youth, nothing, not even those Brontës buying Christmas presents in Woolworths, quite beats the audacious originality of A Harp in Lowndes Square.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Gillian Tindall 2021


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