Nigel Andrew, Julia Strachey, Slightly Foxed Issue 69, National Portrait Gallery

A Kind of Cosmic Refugee

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Julia Strachey was a writer of rare talent and originality who, in a lifetime of writing, managed to complete and publish only two novels and a number of sketches and short stories. I knew nothing of her until I happened to come across a Penguin reprint of those novels, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man. I was immediately bowled over by their brilliance and originality, and was surprised to discover that, in effect, they are all there is. What stopped this gifted writer from finishing and publishing more?

It’s not that her work wasn’t in demand. When Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was published in 1932, it met with a very warm reception. The literary editor of the New Yorker was so impressed that he wrote to Julia and offered to publish anything she cared to send him. Her response was to send nothing for a quarter of a century, until in 1958 she obliged with a sketch, which was duly published – but not until Julia had fought at length, and successfully, to have every single editorial alteration to her piece reversed. Clearly this was not a woman with a strong sense of how to build a literary career.

It isn’t hard to see why Cheerful Weather so impressed its early readers. A cool, darkly comic account of an upper-middle-class wed- ding day in Dorset, it is brisk, deftly managed, sharply observed and crisply written, without a word wasted. But, more than that, there is something in its tone that is unique – something ‘airy and translucent’, as one critic put it. Strachey herself said, rather cryptically, that her aim was to convey a ‘phosphorescent’ impression, and there is a strange luminosity about some of the descriptive passages, in which the author focuses her attention so fixedly on something that it seems to develop a faint unearthly glow. Here she is on a pot of ferns:

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About the contributor

Nigel Andrew is a writer, reviewer and blogger. He has recently written The Mother of Beauty (2019), about the golden age of English church monuments and other matters of life and death.

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