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Until I read the bit in Rebecca West’s This Real Night where one of the main characters dies, I’d never cried properly on a plane. I’ll admit to a bit of panicky sobbing during a bout of bad turbulence, but never before had I abandoned myself to full-on, uncontrollable weeping at 33,000 feet.

I won’t tell you which of the characters dies, because that would be a cruel spoiler, and I am hoping to persuade you to spend time with this strange, wonderful trilogy and the eccentric Aubrey family who live in its pages. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because This Real Night is the second book in the series and – like the unfinished third, Cousin Rosamund – was published posthumously (1984 and 1985 respectively). I often feel a twinge of guilt when I read a book that the author had not wanted published in his or her lifetime: it seems somehow disrespectful. West, who died at the age of 90 in 1983, had had at least two decades to change her mind about these two if she’d wanted to. But in this case I didn’t even hesitate. As soon as I’d finished the first book, The Fountain Overflows (1957), I was sucked into the second like air into a vacuum.

The three books together were to be known, somewhat hubristically, as ‘The Saga of the Century’; in fact they only cover the first half of the twentieth century, not least because the second half hadn’t yet happened. They are West’s fictionalized autobiography, narrated in the first person by Rose, who is a young girl when The Fountain Overflows begins. We do not immediately learn her exact age and only eventually do we work out that her sister Mary is her twin – West doesn’t bother much with external details, she just plunges the reader straight into the peculiar life of the family.

This is the opening sentence: ‘There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again.’ Papa is

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Until I read the bit in Rebecca West’s This Real Night where one of the main characters dies, I’d never cried properly on a plane. I’ll admit to a bit of panicky sobbing during a bout of bad turbulence, but never before had I abandoned myself to full-on, uncontrollable weeping at 33,000 feet.

I won’t tell you which of the characters dies, because that would be a cruel spoiler, and I am hoping to persuade you to spend time with this strange, wonderful trilogy and the eccentric Aubrey family who live in its pages. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because This Real Night is the second book in the series and – like the unfinished third, Cousin Rosamund – was published posthumously (1984 and 1985 respectively). I often feel a twinge of guilt when I read a book that the author had not wanted published in his or her lifetime: it seems somehow disrespectful. West, who died at the age of 90 in 1983, had had at least two decades to change her mind about these two if she’d wanted to. But in this case I didn’t even hesitate. As soon as I’d finished the first book, The Fountain Overflows (1957), I was sucked into the second like air into a vacuum. The three books together were to be known, somewhat hubristically, as ‘The Saga of the Century’; in fact they only cover the first half of the twentieth century, not least because the second half hadn’t yet happened. They are West’s fictionalized autobiography, narrated in the first person by Rose, who is a young girl when The Fountain Overflows begins. We do not immediately learn her exact age and only eventually do we work out that her sister Mary is her twin – West doesn’t bother much with external details, she just plunges the reader straight into the peculiar life of the family. This is the opening sentence: ‘There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again.’ Papa is the black sheep of an Irish landowning family, a brilliant but improvident journalist who gambles and speculates with any money that comes his way. He is a passionate espouser of public causes but completely ignores his responsibilities to his family. (The children adore him, not least because he builds entrancing wooden models for their Christmas presents, but he is also capable of selling his wife’s prized furniture without her permission.) Mamma is a former concert pianist, sensitive but strong, who nurtures her children’s musical abilities while just managing to maintain the household in a sort of shabby gentility on very slender means. Her character is the keystone of the book. So far, so close to West’s own parents: her father left the family when she was 8 and died impoverished when she was 14; in the book the father stays until the children are in their late teens. West, like Rose, had two sisters, but Rose is also given a younger brother called Richard Quin, a figure of unusual charm and goodness who is a counterpoint to the feckless father. It is impossible not to fall for Richard Quin, but at the same time one cannot help feeling that he is there to act as a cypher for the whole generation of innocent young men whose lives were about to be ruined by the First World War. And possibly, also, to rewrite West’s disastrous relationship with her own son, Anthony, from her ten-year affair with the married H. G. Wells. The gap between Rose’s child’s-eye observations of her parents’ marriage and our own adult understanding of the situation is what gives the book much of its poignancy. But it is never cloying – as child narrators can so easily be – and is often extremely funny. One of its themes is the relationship between childhood and adulthood. Mamma, for instance, ‘understood children, and knew that they were adults handicapped by a humiliating disguise and had their adult qualities within them’. I wish I’d read that sentence when I was 12. Rose recognizes in cousin Rosamund, who is a similar age, ‘that she was in the same case as myself, as every child I liked, she found childhood an embarrassing state. We did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people whom we often recognized as stupid and horrid.’ It makes sense to look at the book in terms of its themes because – although there are events, some of them dramatic – plot is not what drives it forward. It is an atmosphere which you inhale and which intoxicates and casts its hypnotic spell over you. To me it recreates how growing up and being part of a family actually feels. There is a big revelation towards the end – both parents have kept a secret from each other – but to call it a plot twist would be going too far. Like learning something new about your parents in real life, it changes your view of the past, but doesn’t change the past itself. The Fountain Overflows explores the relationship between life and art, between real and false art, and what it means to be an artist. The art here is music, but we intuit that it stands also for writing, for art of all kinds. Mamma gave up her promising career as a concert pianist and although she is worn out by her husband’s neglect, she is sustained by music: the family views those who live without art as the real paupers of this world. Rose and Mary have inherited her skill and plan to be concert pianists themselves – as the book ends they are heading off with scholarships to different schools of music in London. Cordelia, the eldest daughter, plays the violin and – encouraged by her teacher, Miss Beevor – begins to perform for money. She feels the burden of the family’s poverty and sees a way of helping the family and escaping from her circumstances. But Mamma and the twins know that her abilities are limited. Eventually a maestro confronts Cordelia with the truth and she never plays again, instead settling for a conventional, bourgeois marriage which the rest of the family regard with horror. The deluded Miss Beevor is at first a figure of mockery, but over time compassionate Mamma enfolds her, as she enfolds other characters and indeed the reader, into the warmth and spiritual generosity of the family. Supernatural happenings recur and are treated as matter-of-factly as having breakfast. When Rose and her mother go to visit cousin Constance and her daughter Rosamund, they are greeted by a fireside poker punching a hole in the window. The house is under siege from a poltergeist: saucepans and crockery fly about, a deafening tattoo is beaten out on the flour bin, bits of coal rain down, sash windows open and close. Its presence in this house, where Constance’s mean and controlling husband also lives, has meant that they spend all their time clearing up and mending things, and cannot make friends. But it all stops suddenly because ‘to drive out the evil presence it had been needed simply that we four should be in a room together, nothing more’. The power of love, perhaps? Certainly Constance and Rosamund are rescued, and they come to stay with the family in the fading old villa in south London, which Papa’s Uncle Ralph has mercifully allowed them to rent. The power of sisterhood is strong in this book; men almost always get a poor showing. Their lot improves somewhat in This Real Night, mostly because Papa does not appear in the second book and instead we get to know his generous and cultured patron, Mr Morpurgo. By now the family finances have become easier. Curious characters and period detail spring from the page, there are rural idylls as well as city life, and the twins continue with their music, but the approach of the First World War is inexorable and devastating. It feels like a completed book, whereas the third, Cousin Rosamund, is formless and evidently unfinished. Rosamund, gentle and infinitely patient and good, makes such an inexplicable marriage that I speculated as to whether West simply felt defeated by her own creation. Why had she written it – to show, perhaps, that people we love can drift away from us into other worlds even while still on this earth? We will never know, and the book is, inevitably, unsatisfying. Even so, it does give us powerful passages on finding love and living life after great loss. The epigraph to the first book reveals the origin of the novel’s title, from William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’: ‘the cistern contains, the fountain overflows’. The only fountain repeatedly mentioned appears on a brooch worn by the pathetic Miss Beevor, ‘a mosaic representing two doves drinking from a fountain’, at which Mamma stares with ‘a positive grimace of disapproval’. This leitmotif may represent false or pretentious art, but it also calls to mind the twins imbibing their mother’s music lessons. After wrestling with it for a bit, I take the title to mean that the subject is the interplay of freedom and restriction in many areas of life, but above all that it is a hymn to the creative impulse. The book is engrossing whatever the title means. Rebecca West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but it was not until I encountered the rebellious heroine of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm – the mistress of a married man – that I realized she had taken a pseudonym. The Fountain Overflows is dedicated to her sister, Letitia Fairfield, who was a doctor, a lawyer and the first female Chief Medical Officer for London. She was also the model for Cordelia and, not entirely surprisingly, she hated the book. In 1947, Time magazine described West as ‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer’. You can’t help wondering how that qualifier sounded to the former suffragette, but it reminds us what a towering figure she was in her time. A pioneering feminist and a Fabian socialist, she was best known for her factual writing, her literary criticism and her journalism (which included reporting from the Nuremberg trials), as well as for her complicated and ultimately unfulfilling private life. H. G. Wells wrote of West: ‘I had never met anything like her before, and I doubt if there was anything like her before.’ That is how I feel about The Fountain Overflows: it is sui generis. I can’t think of another book that has woven around me such a curious and particular web of enchantment. It is one of those that, when you are reading it, lives inside your head as much as the actual world you are forced to inhabit. I suspect that it resonates most with those who come from big or close or complicated families, or who are at least interested in what that might feel like. West understands that those we are closest to can still be alien or utterly mysterious. She understands the silken ties and dark magic that bind a family.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Rebecca Willis 2019


About the contributor

Rebecca Willis occasionally gets called ‘Rebecca West’ which, although always a slip of the tongue, she considers the greatest possible compliment.

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