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I can recommend Aspects of Love. Its six main characters, two English, two French, one Italian, one half-English and half-French, falling in and out of love (and bed) with each other over a period of twenty years, suffer everything but the consequences of their unconventional behaviour. Conventional morality is turned upside down. The moral, in the words of the Italian, Giullietta, quoting Vergil, is ‘Pone merum et talos, pereat qui crastina curat’. Bring on the wine and the dice! Perish the thought of tomorrow!
That’s how the book ends. I don’t know about the musical because I haven’t seen it. I’m talking about the novel on which Andrew Lloyd Webber based his musical. It was written by David Garnett, published in 1955 and now, like most of his books, out of print. Lady into Fox is the only one that is still in print and the only one I had read until I re-read it a couple of years ago, enjoyed it even more than I did the first time, and began looking for second-hand copies of his other books.
So far, I have not been disappointed. His theme is love and, so far, Aspects of Love is the only one in which love comes out of it at all well. In Lady into Fox, the relationship between a young married couple falls apart when she becomes, in a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis, a fox and leaves him. (She visits him later, bringing her cubs with her, but the relationship is essentially over.) In A Man in the Zoo, unrequited love causes the man, in a strange act of revenge, to put himself on display in a zoo. In The Sailor’s Return, love’s civilising influence offers hope for a while, but the ending is not happy. He wrote half a dozen other novels which I have yet to read, but will one day.
He belonged to the Bloomsbury set, most of his books being written in the 20s and 30s. Aspects of Love came later, his first book for twenty years. The four I have read have some things in common. Firstly, a narrative style that is plain and simple and perfectly suited to (secondly) the narrative itself, which is always more or less a fairy tale. In the late book they all live happily ever after, in the others they don’t. Both of these qualities remind me, not of the other members of the Bloomsbury set, but of another writer who is known today, if at all, only for one of his books. The writer T.F.Powys, the book Mr Weston’s Good Wine.
Powys (William Cowper as well as T.F.) might be the subject of another blog. For now, they are simply examples of unjustly neglected writers from the first half of the twentieth century. Louis Golding is another, Magnolia Street, one of several novels he wrote about the Jewish community in Manchester, where he grew up, and the only one still in print. Constance Holme wrote wonderful novels about her native Westmoreland. The Lonely Plough and The Splendid Fairing were best sellers in their day, but none of her books is now in print. She suffered even then from a very English snobbery about writers who neither lived in nor wrote about London. Cold Comfort Farm was the literary expression of that snobbery, Mary Webb its target.
The good news is that all these books can be found in any reputable second-hand book shop and bought for much less than the price of a modern paperback.