Friday, 2 September 2011

The Ballad and the Source

The title feels stagy.  The old Virago cover reinforces this feeling: Atkinson Grimshaw’s Ariadne at Naxos; its transparent heroine standing on the edge of a sickly estuary, the far shore set on fire by the declining sun.  It suggests something contrived and artificial.  A ponderous sensitivity, like garden fairies in Wellington boots, the weakness of the worst fin de siècle Symbolism: its heavy, all too literal, academic style incommensurate with the evanescent atmospheres it so wants to capture.

The book begins in a different way.  A young girl attracted to an old woman; who has a strong and unusual personality.  She is an artist of sorts, highly charismatic, who rearranges life into beautiful patterns, though her style is overdone and self-consciously grandiose and “aesthetic”; the grand dame of the minor salons; a late Victorian artefact.

As we read the book we rethink the title.  It is an allusion to the main character, Sibyl Jardine; and her knack of turning the life around her into a stage play.  Refreshingly alive, and remarkably free from the usual conventions of propriety and social reserve, she talks to Rebecca as if she were a young woman mature in the ways of the world; not a child of ten.  She is fascinating, and Rebecca, like so many before, is hopelessly lost to her, imprisoned by her charm.  Not so her parents, who seem scared of this extraordinary woman: Rebecca’s father in particular is reluctant for his children to visit her, an old friend of his mother’s.  She has a bad reputation; and although they do not say this to their young daughter, she picks up their feelings of unease.  This is how the novel begins.  The French governess and her charges walk up to the old house on the hill; and after picking violets on the way they find the blue door in the boundary wall and enter a magic garden…  Rebecca quickly falls under Sibyl’s spell.

“It is the mystery that frightens us.  Once the mystery is explained, quite simply and straightforwardly, we can digest it; and then we feel satisfied, confident again.  Children have very strong stomachs.  What they cannot deal with they will spit out again; and no harm done.  There is always a way of making a puzzle comprehensible.  It is sheer idiocy,” she vehemently declared, “criminal idiocy to blinker children, to refuse a decent explanation, or to explain falsely, to pack facts in cotton wool, or smear them with treacle… or with mud.”

A divide has been created, the perennial conflict between experience and understanding; the half open door of a young adolescent’s life; where much is seen, but where so much else is hidden and confused.  The child’s life spent navigating the boundaries between them; opening the door just a little wider year on year.  This at least is the expectation these initial scenes create; a strong personality heightening the contrast between them; creating drama out of ignorance, which in turn reveals new insights into a child’s perceptions.  But the novel changes direction, although running through it like a small stream, hidden for long periods by the undergrowth, we glimpse this battle between the knowledge the child receives and her inadequate grasp of what it means. 

This is not the focal point of the landscape.  In place of a precocious child struggling to find her way through the adult world, like some explorer hacking his way through the jungle, we get a series of performances, with Rebecca the audience.  Sibyl; Tilly, her old nurse; Maisie, Sibyl’s granddaughter; and Gil, an artist friend of Sibyl’s, tell a succession of stories about the family’s history.   All these stories are really one story – a journey up river to its source: to find the reasons for the familial tragedy; to uncover the character of Sibyl herself.  Occasionally Rebecca interjects, sometimes admits to us her confusion, but mostly she is afraid to show her ignorance; afraid that it will stop the flow of anecdote and analysis.  Always she must appear more grown up than she is.  For this is a different story about youth: the innocent listener that can be told everything, because she does not understand.  An audience before which people perform; let out their guilt, their overbearing memories; a pair of ears in which they can create themselves endlessly; wallow in their own brilliance, their daring, their perceptiveness. 

This is what frightens people – Sibyl overflows her boundaries, carrying away everyone with her.  Her acquaintances are like her flowerbeds and exquisitely decorated rooms, objects she shapes and rearranges, to achieve the best effects; for their own benefit of course.  And how much better they become!  Stronger, more confident, their talents at last exposed….  Mrs Jardine really is a magician, it seems; she can change people miraculously.  A vibrating source of energy she needs other people’s to feed her own dynamo; she requires their intelligence and talent, their untapped reserves of active life; drawing it out of them she creates a landscape of luxuriance and exquisite taste; where all their talents become abundant and powerful.  Everywhere she lives she brings it alive!  But she has to control and shape this world; all this vibrant life must fit into the patterns she desires; for she is an artist too; of the social realm.  Thus almost inevitably she follows different rules to the common run.  Thus she leaves her husband for a foreigner, a real artist, and lives in poverty…  Later she writes books, acts on the stage, has lovers we assume, and eventually marries for a second time, Harry, an odd and very quiet man; which throws up even more mysteries – has Sibyl destroyed him too?  But how can such a great person be so destructive?  How can someone so charming, who makes everything so beautiful, be evil?  She must be good!  This is the conflict Rebecca struggles with: she hears the ballad but is unable to find its source; until the end when a dream reveals it to her.  She had recognised the signs earlier.

For the first time, but not the last time, it struck me that, privilege though it would be to be the child of Mrs. Jardine, this status might assume the nature of a formidable burden.  So many noble conceptions, so much wisdom and originality, demanding so exhausting a standard of behaviour, presented with such implication of critical reflection upon one’s own disabilities…

Rebecca’s grandmother tried to persuade Sibyl to give up her love affair, and to return to her home and child.  She would not!  Too full of pride and independence, too overcome with sexual experience and fulfilment, she would not submit to the staid routines of a conventional married life.   This is the source of the future tragic history.  It leads to her estrangement from her daughter; who in turn follows the same path, but who weaker falls into ditches and muddy bogs…  And there is a message here, which the later passages confirm (at least for those descendants who embody Sibyl’s feminine traits), the withering away of vitality, from generation to generation.  Thus Cherry, Ianthe’s child, Sibyl’s granddaughter…

“She troubles me that child.  Her vitality has suffered some natal or pre-natal injury.  The source rises in her – then flags and wavers down again.  It is not stable. That is her inheritance.”  Again she drew in a deep breath.

“The source?”  I said, puzzled about the spelling, following her with blossoming basket.

“The source, Rebecca!  The fount of life – the source, the quick spring that rises in illimitable depths of darkness and flows through every living thing from generation to generation.  It is what we feel mounting in us when we say: ‘I know!  I love! I am!’  Do you understand me now?”

Her voice vibrated as if speaking waters ran through it.

“Yes,” I breathed, bewildered by a flying vision of streams and fountains, and myself borne along, dissolved in their elemental welling-up and flow.

“Sometimes,” she said, “the source is vitiated, choked.  Then people live frail, wavering lives, their roots cut off from what should nourish them.  That is what happens to people when life is betrayed – murdered.”

The explanation is simple and formidable: the inequality of women; their powerlessness the obstacle to the free flow of their lives, the satisfactions of their noble desires.  But she goes further.  It is her, Sibyl Anstey (her maiden and stage name), who in a small way has helped begin the break up of these barriers; the future generations to finish her work.  Like all magicians we lose the object in a sleight of hand: in this case the individual source of the family’s tragedy; the all too powerful will of a woman too strong to accept the conventions which protect weaker souls.  Instead we see the enormous power of an ego projecting itself onto history, erasing the small individualities of lives lived in the mundane world of family feeling. 

One of the problems of the 20th century novel, at least until the 1960s when this problem vanished altogether, was how to tell a story and depict real life at the same time.  Our lives tend not to be carved up into discrete episodes; with a beginning, middle and end.  And except for rare exceptions it is hard to find too much that is exciting and original, anything in our lives that has the resonances of legend and myth.  So much of our time appears boring and uninteresting, at least to the impartial observer who sees us from a distance.  In the early decades of the last century telling a simple story became difficult; for wanting more than ever to capture the texture of our lives the most original writers were faced with a problem.  Ordinary narrative devices were forcing people’s experiences into shapes they didn’t have; and thus distorting the very thing they were trying to capture: our daily habits, their boredom and inertia.   It was also a time when form and content were believed to be one: there should be no jarring elements to distract us from the organic whole of the art object.   With such views it became hard to depict an ordinary clerk, working in insurance, married with three kids, all destined to work in junior positions, as the hero in a high adventure; or a protagonist in public history.  To force such a character into such narratives was to create a life rather than record it; to falsify it with literary conventions and old techniques.  It was to run away from the real!  That apprehension of experiences that seemed denied to previous generations; a sense of a new realm of reality exposed for the first time; and which was waiting to be described and annotated.  There had to be a better way!  There was.  The mythic substructure of James Joyce’s Ulysses within which the characters live their mundane lives; while the thick texture of its language created an analogue for the glutinosity of real life.  Another approach was to get inside the character’s minds - Joyce again, and Proust and Ford Maddox Ford - and follow them as they create their own worlds, partly real and part imaginary, full of elisions and fantasies; deep insights, and satisfying epiphanies.  Gabriel Josipovici, in an excellent critical study, writes of how these novels undermine our perceptions of the world; making us conscious of how much our understanding is habitual and framed by conventional assumptions.  In these novels, many of which are first person narratives, we live completely inside the minds of the characters, experiencing their rich but limited perspectives, until the moment their illusions jar with the external reality; and we are suddenly aware that we have been inside a story; shaped, manufactured, and partly (perhaps) hugely wrong…  Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier may be the best example of a novel of this kind.

What happened in the 1960s?  Metafiction.

The Ballad and the Source was written nearly twenty years before this later revolution.  It may be Rosamond Lehmann’s method of dealing with the century’s earlier problem: how to tell an old-fashioned melodrama in a new way; that recognises the self-consciousness of the characters - how we create stories to meet our own needs -, but places it within a relatively conventional narrative setting.   Thus the drama is provided by the individual narrators.  The self-dramatisation of Sibyl, the heightened emotional reactions of Tilly, the cool psychology of Gill, and the still adolescent excitement of Maisie, carried away by the drama of the story she is telling.  Their audience an intelligent but puzzled child; who experiences the world more through imagination than critical analysis.

Towards the end of the novel the sculptor Gil explains our psychology:

“Like it does in dreams?”

“I suppose so – yes.  Everything turned into something else; so she was quite lost.  He said…  you see, in one’s mind an object can never be just itself: it connects up with other things that remind you of it for some reason, things you’ve seen or remembered, sometimes from years and years ago when you were a child.  For instance, whenever I come into a dark room at night and see firelight flickering, I think of being ill in bed when I was little…

“Watching the patterns it made on the night nursery ceiling.  So that, in a way, I’m in this dark room and back in the night nursery, both at the same time.  I’m split.  And it would come over me again, although I was standing calmly years and years later in a different room, and had forgotten, perhaps, the reason for my fright or sadness.  But because I’m sane it would only be for a minute, and I’d brush it all aside.  But when people go off their rockers, all the links get jumbled up or break altogether.  Then they get real, complete delusions…”

A touch of Sigmund Freud is unmistakable, but I wonder if the influence is more Marcel Proust; the greatest of David Hume’s followers – In Search of Lost Time an evocation of his theory of the association of ideas (part of that background empiricism which clearly influenced Freud; the common ancestry which Lehmann shares with all these writers).   Sibyl, indeed, would reject the Viennese doctor: children have far stronger stomachs than he believed possible.  Rather than childhood trauma, which the centrality of Rebecca seems to deny, as does the optimism embodied in Maisie’s personality, her resistance to Mrs Jardine, it is the weight of the past that is too heavy for the following generations to bear that is the meaning of this novel.  The future shaped by a superhuman personality, whose sons and daughters are set in moulds they cannot escape; until a different combination of factors breaks open these closed rooms where they are kept stifled and deformed.  Thus Maisie can escape Sibyl’s power; for she has inherited a different combination of traits: the stubborn energy of her grandmother and the physical shape and outlook of her father’s family; while the inheritance has dissipated, the main current of that strong river has run off into too many tributaries… too weak now, it allows another strong character to break free.

The mad are powerless, Gil explains; overcome by a past they cannot control it overwhelms and finally conquers them.  But this is also the source of the artist’s power: to create the present using that always mutable past; moulding a version to suit their own purposes.  The mad frighten and intimidate.  Their delusions are so apparent and strong, so immediately recognisable; you feel their danger; their unreality unsettles and disturbs.  The stories of the artist, the creations of Sibyl Jardine, are enchanting, so beautiful and uplifting, so alive and vital, that they draw us in, pull Rebecca into the open arms of her intoxicating personality.

As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman’s figure appeared.  She waved.  She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet us.  She was dressed in a long gown of pale blue with wide sleeves embroidered thickly with blue, rose and violet flowers.  She had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders, and on her head, with its pile of fringed, puffed, curled white hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind.  She was small and rather stocky, with short legs and little feet shod in low-heeled black slippers with tongues and paste buckles.

When she came up to us, she said:

“I must kiss you, because I loved your grandmother.”

…We were deeply struck by her remark.  It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life in which such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation.  I had at this time a sense that I might be a more romantic figure than my parents and other people realised.

These artists are insidious: so captivating!  Before you realise it, you too cannot escape.  Those outspread arms really ropes and chains…


  1. This is a fascinating analysis. Thank you. But who was Sybil Jardine based on? I can't imagine that Rosamond Lehmann created her out of thin air. I have read that several people have identified a possible real-life person who may have inspired Sybil, and indeed I lived with one for 14 months when I was 19! What would a psychiatrist make of her character?
    This is an extraordinary book, that I came across by chance 30 years ago when I decided to read as many Virago press books as I could get from the local library.
    I was delighted to discover that Jonathan Coe is also a fan of the genre, and his novel 'The Rain Before it Falls' is directly influenced by Rosamund lehmann, and his central character is called Rosamund.
    Many thanks!!!

  2. Thank you. I really appreciate your comments.

    According to Selina Hastings' biography Sybil is based on Ménie Fitzgerald, a one time actress, traveller and writer. Here is how she describes a holiday with Rosamond:

    "During her stay at Vichy, Ménie put herself out to enchant the gauche young woman, courting her with presents of clothes and jewellery; and bestowing on her affectionate nicknames - one of which, 'Sappho', made Rosamond distinctly uneasy. She had no need for anxiety in that quarter...."

    This is how Rosamond describes Ménie.

    "She was fascinating, brilliant, an actress, a liar - there was something wicked in her, though there was generosity and tenderness as well."

    Reading Hasting's book I thought that the model may actually be Rosamond herself... there was something demonic about her beauty and charm.