Saturday, 23 June 2007

Cousin Hortense

It’s more than a week since I wrote anything here, and suddenly it seems as if events have overtaken me, and I shall be unable to remember and record everything that has happened lately. We have been living here for six months now, Bill and I; and it’s difficult to recall how long the empty days seemed at first, and how I wondered whether I should ever make the acquaintance of any of the neighbours. Now, I am truly in the thick of everything that’s going on, and my chief difficulty is in remembering who is saying precisely what about whom; to which of the several factions each of my new friends belongs – and where my own affection and loyalties ought to be seen to lie.

My affection for Frances remains undimmed of course. But with her engagement, she has entered regions to which I am unable to go, even in imagination. The idea of the life that she and David must lead together there behind the high walls of the manor house day after day, is one before which I find that contemplation stumbles. I simply cannot envisage their life, and so I have given up trying to make the attempt.

Bill is not so cowardly, and has his own theories about it. “She exists to promote the cause of David Porteous, damn it!” he says. That it’s an ignoble cause is of no consequence, he says; since she believes in it herself. "She’s mistaken, but she believes – oh ardently! And until she sees the error of that belief herself there’s not a thing that any of us can do about it.”

Privately, I think he hopes that sooner or later Frances will have a change of heart, and seek escape – and that when that moment comes, he will be called upon to storm the citadel himself, and bring her out. I believe he would welcome such a contingency; I would go further, and suggest that he probably has battle plans already drawn up, and that they will have something at least of a commando raid about them. Though I could be hopelessly mistaken myself about that aspect of it, of course... Bill has always said I have a tendency towards the fantastic.

Bill has other ladies than Frances on his mind at present, as a matter of fact. Something occurred during our stay with the Macauleys in Suffolk that has altered the perspective of our lives somewhat – though Bill says it’s a mere will-o’-the-wisp of an event, and that I’m over-dramatising it, as is my wont. Whether this is true or not, future developments will doubtless show. But I have decided to relate it for you here just as it occurred. As a light little diversionary story perhaps, that will help dispel the present gloom over the affair of David Porteous and Frances.

You will perhaps recall the rather strange nameless lady who shared my table at Lady Macauley’s luncheon party last month? The one who wore a jewelled bandana on her head, and conversed in sudden short bursts, and unconnected observations? There’s no reason in the world why you should remember her of course; I seem to recall thinking at the time that I was unlikely ever to see her again myself, and should probably never discover precisely who she was, or from whence she’d sprung.

But the fact is that she sprang up again last week while we were in Suffolk with the Macauleys, and has since become a rather extraordinary background presence in our lives. I say ‘our’ lives, but really I mean Bill’s. He seems to have ‘landed’ this strange lady - and will perhaps have some difficulty in extricating himself from her. He has a tendency towards that sort of thing: his life has always to some extent been littered with unattached females of a certain age who form passionate attachments to him. He says it’s another of the occupational hazards of being a foreign correspondent – people identify him with the battles he reports, and make a hero of him on the flimsiest evidence.

This latest conquest of his is called Hortense. Yes, really, that is her name: I haven’t invented it! She was one of the half a dozen or so guests who were sitting around the luncheon table last week, at the moment of our arrival at Barton Flory, Lady Macauley’s childhood home in rural Suffolk. We had arrived late, after an awkward car journey with Rose, who’d insisted on sitting in front with Bill, and kept up an animated conversation all the way.

We slid into the seats that had been kept for us, trying not to cause too much of a disruption to the progress of the lunch; and there, on Bill’s right hand was my lady of the bandana; unadorned on this occasion by any such headdress, but launched, at the moment of our arrival upon a solemn-sounding dissertation on the subject of Virginia Woolf. She looks a little like Virginia, as a matter of fact; she certainly has an air of Bloomsbury about her, and is very fond of Vita Sackville-West too, apparently. Bill put her down at once as a raging lesbian – though later events were to prove him wrong on that score, at least.

“The tall woman with the curiously booming voice is my Cousin Hortense!” Lady Macauley informed us in a theatrical whisper during coffee in the drawing room half an hour later. “Be as kind to her as you can; she’s a poor thing, and has led a rather tragic life. She trails disappointed love affairs in her wake as other women trail stale perfume, and will almost certainly fall in love with Bill. She has a great weakness for big men with hearty laughs; she won’t be able to help herself. And having fallen, she will cling – I give you warning of that in advance!”

She went on to advise Bill to steel himself against any advances from Cousin Hortense; who had, as she put it, “ nothing in the world to offer him save her wounded heart and a more or less derelict mansion a hundred miles from anywhere ....” His best resource if Hortense should pounce, she said, would be to let her know he’s allergic to cats. “Tell her you simply loathe the creatures, and her heart will be implacably closed to yours -for she has twenty of them in that great barn she calls a house, and they are at present the solitary passions of her life.”

Bill laughed heartily about it at the time, telling Lady Macauley she was a thoroughly immoral woman, to be talking about her cousin in such terms. But I think he has good reason to remember it more soberly now; since everything that Lady Macauley predicted was actually to come to pass. I believe I was myself witness to the precise moment at which Cousin Hortense fell passionately in love with Bill. It was later that evening, and we were all sitting in the drawing room to listen to Belle playing excerpts from Chopin and Mozart with a surprisingly expert hand.

It was Lady Macauley’s idea that she should switch to ballads and light operetta, and that we should all gather round to sing – and it was while Bill was delivering a fairly spirited rendition of O Sole Mio, that Cousin Hortense was suddenly overcome with emotion. She uttered a soft sort of swooning sound, somehow audible above the music; then, throwing up both arms in a thrilling gesture, cried “Bravo, oh bravo and bravo again!”, and visibly gave up her heart to him.

All this happened over a week ago, and it’s true that Cousin Hortense hasn’t yet forsaken her cats so far as to get on a train and come to visit us. She has taken to e-mailing Bill however – she has a fondness for e-mails, apparently, and has developed quite a rococo electronic style. Bill says it’s harmless enough, so long as it goes no further – but I notice he’s giving rather more thought than hitherto, to that invitation he’s had from the British Council, to deliver a series of lectures in Australia and the Far East.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Just One More Thing

Can there be even one?” I hear you exasperatedly cry. To which the answer is yes, I very much fear there can! I really do apologise for this; it breaks the continuity of the story quite shockingly, I know. But it was always to have been an experiment, this re-telling of the story as a blog; and as such, it has taken on a momentum, and a capacity for fluctuation and change, that I confess I hadn’t foreseen myself at the outset.

My present dilemma concerns the discrepancy that has arisen around the characters (and the names) of Mr Porteous’s daughters. I had originally called them Julia and Anne - but those names no longer seemed quite the right ones, and so they have changed to become Imogen and Amy. Imogen is the elder, dark-eyed, and inclined to be confrontational in her relations with her father; Amy the younger, fairer, and more compliant.

I had already posted an instalment entitled Mr Porteous's Daughter, describing Anne, and the little handicrafts shop she had lately opened in the village. But I have now deleted that entry, and can only ask that those of you who have perhaps already read it, will try to delete it from your memories also?

It’s a great deal to ask I know. I had hoped in fact that the discrepancy might have been noticed, and brought to my attention by way of the Comment box. That it has not done so suggests that nobody has in fact noticed – so perhaps the adjustment won’t present quite so many difficulties as I had feared!

The present situation vis-a-vis the girls is therefore as I described it in the instalment of 15 June entitled “A Blog too far?”. And for those who haven’t read it (and perhaps have no intention of doing so!), the present recorded facts about the girls are these:

1) Imogen is 28, and took her degree at one of the London art colleges, specialising in textile management and care. Amy is 26, and took a degree in English at Bristol.

2) They have drifted about a good deal since graduating, and in fact spent many months in Australia with their mother, trying to decide whether they wanted to stay there or not. They have lately returned to England however, and are sharing a flat above a shop in Baker St (near to the Sherlock Holmes museum); with a view to taking a lease on the shop too, and opening it as an art and handicrafts shop.

3) This is an enterprise of which their father strongly disapproves.

This will I hope be the final alteration, and I apologise again for it.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Mr Porteous and Frances; the early encounters

These are the last of the excerpts from the original novel that I mean to post at this stage. They will I hope provide a little more insight into the characters of David Porteous and Frances Fanshawe - and will perhaps help to prevent readers' becoming too attached to the idea of the new improved Mr Porteous!

(Note: there is a little discrepancy here - in that when David calls at the manor house the second time, he seems to be seeing Frances for the first time! Put it down to carelessness of editing - and be sure that it will be amended in the final draft!)

The first episode takes place shortly after the previous full chapter about David Porteous. He has been in residence in Aunt Floss’s house for about three weeks, has become acquainted with Mrs Baines and Roland – and has lately been the recipient of a basket of fruit and vegetables sent round by Frances from the manor house garden. He is sitting at his desk trying to write, as usual - but he finds his thoughts wandering, and expects at any moment to be disturbed by one of Mrs Baines’s ‘little phone calls’...

“........ And if it were not Mrs Baines who disturbed him, it would be that other rather remarkable new acquaintance of his, Miss Frances Fanshawe; who had lately sent round her man-of-all-work with a basket of fruit and vegetables from her garden, and who, on his calling at her house to express his thanks, had seemed to want to keep him there - had wanted to show him her father’s library, or her display of orchids, or her lavender parterre… David couldn’t remember exactly what it was that Miss Fanshawe had wanted to show him, only that she had seemed oddly insistent about it, for a rather sadly faded little maiden lady……..

He thought he would almost certainly take up her invitation at some point. He hardly saw how he could do otherwise; so anxious had she seemed to further the acquaintance; and so very much struck had he been himself moreover, by the size, and sheer magnificence of the house she lived in. It was called the manor house, and was a perfect example of the architecture of the period of Queen Anne. Its high brick walls enclosed grounds that were only slightly smaller than those of the Macauley house; it occupied what amounted to an entire block, and the only access was by way of a pair of tall, impenetrable-looking black gates that seemed to defy, rather than encourage approach.

“She is as effectively walled-in as any princess in a tower” David reflected, as he stood outside the tall black gates, trying to decide whether or not to press the entry bell. He found amusement in the reflection - but there was something oddly seductive about it too. He was going to have to perform feats of valour perhaps – scale walls, and push his way through thickets of brambles – before he could gain access to his prize? He hesitated a moment longer, then firmly pressed the bell; telling himself, while he waited for a response, that a lady must be small and faded indeed who should altogether fail to excite one’s interest, when she was evidently the sole custodian of what he had already begun to think of as “all this”… “

Ten minutes later, having been admitted at last by a rather surly Mrs Meade, and conducted across a wide courtyard in which a pair of immense cedars blocked out all the light.... he finds himself seated on a high-backed chair in a wide, polished entrance hall, waiting for Frances Fanshawe to appear. Here is what he is thinking:

“.... The signs of wealth and ease were all around him, but he was pleased to see that they were under-stated, and didn't shout at him of recent expenditure or conscious show. “Her chairs and her cabinets and her pictures are old and good” he thought; “But they are not ostentatious. And she evidently hasn’t had to go out and buy them herself!". He was glad of that: he was fond of the high tone and the dismissive attitude. He could easily suppose that such a lady as Miss Fanshawe would wave all these splendid objects aside with a surprised “What – these old things?”. It would be the tone of wealth and privilege, worn lightly. And it was the one, too, which Mr Porteous believed he might have been intended by Nature to adopt himself - had Nature only seen fit to put him down in the kinds of circumstances in which it would have been appropriate.

Here then, he thought, was a lady to whom one could take an honest liking – provided of course that she shouldn’t turn out to be quite the kind of impossible spinster whom one half expected, or feared... He had a momentary vision, awful to him, of a kind of resurrected Aunt Floss, come back to try him again in the person of the lady of the manor. He quickly brushed it aside however; since for all her opinions, Aunt Floss would have been hopelessly out of her depth in conditions such as these. No, Miss Fanshawe must be a very different kind of lady, he decided. He was resolved to like her if he could. He thought she would have to be unlikeable indeed, if she failed to satisfy at least some of the expectations that her furniture seemed to raise!

He was not so vulgar, of course, as to say to himself that here was perhaps the kind of solitary maiden lady who would turn out to represent his best chance yet of being swept away into more propitious circumstances. He declined absolutely to entertain the idea that there was anything in his meditations that could be called venal – or worse still, carnal! Heaven forbid that he should have sunk so low! He was just a little disconcerted, for all that, by that propensity of his (it had arisen only lately) for viewing all reasonably presentable unattached ladies as potential wives or lovers. It wouldn’t do, he told himself; it was in the worst possible taste! He did allow himself a charmed moment or two just the same, in which to wonder how it might feel to have the freedom of such a house? Wives or lovers aside, he thought he would know how to adapt to it. And he did hope – oh, devoutly: it was a kind of prayer! – that Miss Fanshawe wouldn’t turn out to be the kind of lady whose aspect and character would put her quite out of the question in both respects.

The personage who did finally emerge from out of the house’s deepest recesses to cross the wide expanse of the hall and come to greet him, was neither daunting nor large, however. She was in fact the mildest, and smallest of fluttered-looking English maiden ladies. She wore a paisley skirt, and a cardigan that could only be described as drooping; her grey hair was not in any sense what David would have called ‘arranged’, and in her rather large, pale face were only the merest vestigial hints of what might once have been girlish prettiness. Her pearls were probably real, he thought; but she wore them without distinction, and though she held out her hand to him and smiled a greeting, the smile was tremulous, and he saw that for all her ten bedchambers and her rooms of state, she was very much more nervous of meeting him, than he was of her.”

Somehow, having managed to persuade a disgruntled Mrs Meade to delay bringing coffee for them, Frances finds courage to suggest they go out into the garden, where the following passage takes place:

“.... It was clear by now that everything Miss Fanshawe said, even when it was only her instructions to her housekeeper, had a tendency to drift off into inconclusiveness at the end; and so it was with the solicitousness almost of the host - with the practised urbanity of the experienced clergyman, certainly – that David all but shepherded her away, his left arm hovering at a respectful distance from her cardiganed back, in the direction which she said would take them to the herb garden. They passed through many pleasant places on the way. David would have liked to linger a while at the edge of a large ornamental pond, to look at the water-lilies, and watch the frogs jump; or a moment later, to have stopped to admire a splendid rose which tumbled over a pretty summerhouse. But his small companion pushed resolutely on, with scarcely a word or a sideways glance; rather in the manner, he thought, of a small spaniel that was intent on taking him to see a bone it had lately buried. And when at last, having stooped to pass beneath another voluptuous rose which partially blocked an arched gateway in a wall, they came at last upon the box-edged symmetry of the knot garden, it was to no announcement of hers, but only a sharp exhalation, an almost reverent “Ah... a knot garden!”, on David's part.

Miss Fanshawe turned up her face to him in a large, dim smile. She was pleased with his appreciation; but she was evidently no sort of hand, herself, at superlatives.

“Mr Jessop would be so pleased to hear you call it that” was the nearest she could come to it. “He thinks everybody has forgotten the name now – and he worked so hard to make all the little hedges. He’ll allow no-one else to go near them with a pair of clippers you know – and he’d have preferred to have varieties of lavender in all the beds. He says that’s the proper sort of planting – but I would have my herbs......”

It was apparently as near as she could come to a conversational opening of her own; and her drifting off into vagueness at its end seemed to make it incumbent upon David to take up her theme and expand it as best he could.

“I daresay Mr Jessop is right” he thoughtfully said. “ Though it always seems to me one can experience the special delights of a knot garden just as well with fragrant herbs. I’m not sure that wasn’t its original function after all.” He asked her permission then, to pluck a sprig or two. For the pleasure, he said, of crushing them between his fingers to release their fragrance. He sniffed deeply, then held a stalk of rosemary at a little distance from Miss Fanshawe’s face, so that she too might enjoy the aroma. They walked slowly together round all the little paths, David making all the conversational openings, and Miss Fanshawe responding now and then with a small utterance of her own. She had begun to be a little more comfortable with him though; she had grown quite pink with it. And David had begun to find that he was rather enjoying himself. There was a good deal to be said for the company of such an undemanding little lady, he thought: it made the appreciation of all her splendid possessions so very much simpler. He was in no hurry to bring the experience to an end; he even thought he might suggest they wander on to look at other parts of the garden. But Miss Fanshawe had suddenly remembered Mrs Meade and her coffee.

“Oh dear” she said. “We have left it to get cold! We ought to go back at once – if you can spare the time to stay for coffee, that is...?”

“ Oh well, we musn’t disappoint Mrs Meade!” David had the gentlest little smile for it. “And indeed I’d like very much to stay for coffee - if you’re quite sure it won’t be too much of an intrusion into your own morning, that is?”

Miss Fanshawe was quite sure. She had nothing whatever to do, she said. And then as if she suddenly saw how idle, or grand, or unwelcoming that must have sounded, she amended it; telling him, all in a rush, that of course she did have to go out later to see an old friend who was ill, and then to do some shopping; but that there was quite time enough for coffee even so... She added that Mrs Meade would be waiting for them anyway - would probably have gone away to make a fresh pot indeed. And then she led the way - or rather, permitted herself to be led, Mr Porteous’s hand resting an inch or two beneath her elbow - back across the polished expanse of the hall, and into a sunny corner of her father’s library, where Mrs Meade, with a marked disgruntlement of countenance, was waiting with her second tray of coffee....”

So there it is – or rather, there it was. And I can see that I was right, in my suspicions about Mr Porteous and Frances. It was always on the cards that he was going to make himself indispensable to her. It only shocks me a little (I hope it doesn't also shock you!) to see how entirely sure-footed he was about it, from the start!