The past present with each tap on a keyboard. We calibrate it so easily, waving goodbye to these odd questions, which dart around like dragonflies over a pond. The past? We type it away, each tap reducing thought to our fingertips; tap tap tap to your silly questions. That is our answer! The last full stop the last thing we see when the train punctures the horizon.
Ah! if only life was so simple. So come on, let us think a little more broadly. About years rather than seconds; let stages of life replace just last week.
When does the present, in this widest sense, become the past? It is that moment when some earlier time, our younger self to give an example, seems more vital than today; when we have settled down with the guardian, our old opinions, and the ritualised complaints about office life. We’re too busy to do anything now! Our greatest defeat; a sign of our passing age… how odd this busyness thing should confirm us in our inertia.
Contentment came in a warm sluggish tide of well-being when Annie drew the curtains, heaped the fire, and left her with a great cup of coffee and a toasted bun, and a new novel from the library; or dreamily, wistfully, shot through with points of question and flickers of regret when Norah took her in her little car for a drive in the country.
One day the present becomes the past. Can we identify that day? This is not the question Rosamond Lehmann asks in this her second book; here she is more interested in the idea of life as a kind of music. She quotes W.S. Landor in her epigraph:
But the present, like the note in music, is nothing but as it pertains to what is past and what is to come.
The existing moment is not a discrete event; suffused with resonances from the past it creates new ones for the future. Although it is the past that dominates the characters here; a large building that blocks out today’s sunlight. We are not free to live for the day; it is too soaked in our history; which we can never completely wring out. This is reflected in the main personalities, particularly Norah, settled into an unsatisfied middle age, her young love lost she manages a difficult husband, and her friend Grace, married to someone she doesn’t love, and who lives a self-contained, but impoverished, emotional life; she spends her days swimming around in the images of her childhood. These lost dreams symbolized by the northern town they live in. It is middle aged and comfortable.
The novel, an early one, reflects music in another way: the idea of a symphony or sonata where each character is theme and counter-theme, the chords resonating between them. It creates its effects, and is successful, although there are times when the characters are squeezed too tightly inside their stiff corsets, too much the exemplary type, their stays creaking as they move around the house.
Grace remembers her childhood home, the beautiful vicarage garden; and how she fell for her husband, quickly realising her mistake – she did not love him. Have we found the secret? Was that the moment her present ended, and her history began? An early retirement when we live on the inherited money of our younger years: the best years, the vital ones, the most invigorating, the years when everything is possible, at least we tell ourselves so; and come to believe it. Though with Grace we surmise she has never left her chrysalis.
For Norah it was the death of Jimmy. For Tom, Grace’s husband, his inability to get into university; resigned to a dull job. Routine and other people determine what they do. They are commanded by habit. The light has gone! Sparking intermittently when other people flick the switch.
Why is this so? Norah gives one answer:
Electricity, vitality, spirit – call it what you would – the supply was not to be exhausted by one demand, however ravenous and perennial. No, rather, perhaps, it was dependent on this for its replenishment. Only, to-night she hated the active life, wanted to have rest from this perpetual crumbling of the edges, this shredding out of one’s personality upon minute obligations and responsibilities. She wanted, even for a few moments, to feel her own identity peacefully floating apart from them all, confined and dissolved within a shell upon which other people’s sensibilities made no impression. But this was not possible, never for a second, in one’s own house.
This follows a battle of wills over a triviality with her husband, Gerald. During a few minutes of reflection she wants to be like her friend Grace. Norah is active, and is vitally engaged with the local society, but she is also a servant to her household. She cannot create herself in the present moment. She is busy, but this, as we find later, and her friend Clare confirms, is just another way of losing her youth and spirit; her elasticity – such a good phrase; she reflects on this after Hugh has gone. Something is missing: the freedom of a young personality; the ability to make choices and be alive to lived experience; to lose oneself in the moment; to make it one’s own. A freshness has been lost. She is perpetually busy; and it seems that she is in control, but this is an illusion, although there are moments of happiness. Always busy; busyness: a conveyer belt on which other people place their demands. And take a part of you. Each day another particle of your energy lost; that shredding out of one’s personality upon minute obligations and responsibilities so acutely insightful.
And then the music changes. Hugh, young and active, and his older sister, Clare, still beautiful and vivacious, adds a vigorous counterpoint. Grace is once again absorbed in the here and now, her senses responding to the comely charms of this young man. Norah’s husband, deprived of true love – he has always been second best to Jimmy -, which may have deprived him of his early academic brilliance (another historical turning point: the day the honeymoon ended?) – becomes besotted with the charms of Clare.
She went back to the drawing-room and found him amid an applauding group doing parlour tricks: a strikingly unexpected sight. He was on his hands and knees, hands tied behind his back, a bottle on his head, in the act of taking a handkerchief in his mouth and lifting it from the floor. Even when she exclaimed he did not drop it. His eyes were fixed on Clare, proudly, eloquently. The handkerchief was hers.
A strange disturbance: the present breaking into the past. The stuffy professor once more the silly student; drunk once again on love. Hugh and Clare are manifestations of a spirit, of a youth, that habit and nostalgia has drained away. Grace is the obvious example. She is so comfortable! Hugh notices this when they are together: she can sit still, and do nothing and be perfectly content. She has accommodated herself to the world. Norah is her only friend, and distant from her husband, and getting hardly anything done – she is domestically hopeless – she drifts through life, a day dream carried along on an attractive, but quiescent, body. She changes nothing. Hugh changes things. Grace is suddenly alive her senses buzzing like bees around a hive. She effects a minor revolution in the household; which like most revolutions returns to the status quo ante, but with subtle differences: husband and wife are even more distant than before. In compensation Grace has newer, more vital, images to sustain her. In a fascinating scene we see her turning the present into the past, manufacturing new memories while living the experience. This is her last meeting with Hugh, which she turns into theatre, a performance that will give depth and resonance, will give protein, to her memories; sustaining her over the provincial plain of her remaining married years.
What Grace doesn’t see, though perhaps she senses and is attracted by it, is the past already nesting inside her loved one. She is not aware of his young love; does not see the moment when his youth has begun its terminal decline:
On the hall table gleamed a pale and solitary square of paper. He glanced at in passing; and the name upon it, minute but clear as print, started up at him from the dark wood like a menace. He stopped dead; after a minute had to go back, look again; read Oliver Digby, Esq. and the London address.
So he was writing to him, this chap. So they knew each other. So Oliver had come back from wherever he was, lost, silent. Se he was in London. And he had not let one know. He must have had both letters, then, and simply not bothered to answer them. So that was final.
And such an extraordinary and awful feeling – something he had never known before or dreamed of – swept through him as he stood there…
All over. Now the past begins. What an awful feeling that must be!