My rating: 7.5/10
This slender novella read much better the second time around. The initial attempt rather threw me – I wasn’t quite sure what I was dealing with – it was decidedly unexpected. Much more noir than I had anticipated from the other reviews I’d read, and from the Persephone description.
Having sorted things out, I was able to read with more attention to detail the second time around, and to pin down my impressions much more firmly. Though, the more I think about it, the more complicated my responses seem to be!
Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.
Her mother, whom Dolly appears to tolerate with thinly disguised disgust, is fluttering about micro-managing the action, and confusing the servants by constantly contradicting her impulsive orders. Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, a brash but deeply insecure seventeen-year-old, barges about and loudly plays the knowing naïf. Dolly’s close friend Evelyn tensely hovers at the edges of the action. The bridegroom is about somewhere, but does not seem to be a prominent player in this drama; it is a very feminine world we are glimpsing: the bride, her sister and mother, her best friend, the inside servants.
Several hours before she is due at the altar, Dolly seems immobilized with a kind of fixated lethargy. On her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, she sits down at the writing-table, and we see the room and Dolly’s face reflected in the clouded surface of an antique mirror.
It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence,. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.
To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.
For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.
The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.
Is this the portrait of a joyful bride? Obviously not, and as the narrative continues we discover nothing to change this initial impression of the bride as having some serious emotional turmoil going on under her numbly complacent cooperation with those preparing her for her imminent ceremonial change of matrimonial status.
For we soon become aware that this bride has a back story, and that story has another main character, and he is actually in the house, waiting for a chance to speak to Dolly, who in her turn seems most reluctant to encounter him.
Joseph Patten is an anthropology student who is obviously on familiar terms with the Thatcham menage. Apparently he has been a bosom friend of Dolly’s; they spent the previous summer inseparably together, though they have since parted ways. Yet here is Joseph, lurking about, waylaying people as to the whereabouts of Dolly, obviously hoping to speak to her before the ceremony, after which she will be immediately departing with her new husband to embark for South America where the bridegroom has a diplomatic posting.
Dolly is avoiding Joseph, and he whiles away the hours by popping out of rooms and dropping inflammatory comments into the midst of conversations, before retreating into sullen silence which builds until the next outburst.
Dolly makes it into her dress and eventually out the door with the aid of a bottle of rum, which, in a memorable vignette, we see clutched in her hand and swathed in the lace of her antique lace veil as she droops down the stairs in the final moments of her spinsterhood. She and Joseph do connect, but as neither of them can articulate their Great Big Expectations of each other – if indeed they actually have fully formed expectations – the wedding day proceeds as originally planned.
Once the bride and groom are seen off, the dregs of the guests and the family mingle in anticlimactic winding-down mode. Joseph is still hanging about, and he lets go with a shocking but highly suspect account of what Dolly has been up to the summer before while in Albania. Mrs. Thatcham, the target of this bizarre allegation, dismisses it with a fine cold shoulder, and we are left reeling a bit at the swirling undercurrents of this brief and highly disturbing glimpse into this collection of fictional lives.
Julia Strachey has put together a quirky, memorably stylized, very visual bit of fiction with this short novella. The exceedingly unlikable Mrs. Thatcham was based on Strachey’s first mother-in-law, whom she apparently despised; it is a damning character portrait, if that is indeed the case.
I did find myself surprisingly in sympathy with both Dolly and the almost-invisible Owen at the end of the tale; I suspect and hope, from a few tiny clues dropped here and there, that they will create a marriage with some hope of success, once they have escaped the physical bonds of their old lives in England and can recreate themselves in a new world.
Joseph – well – I found myself rather on his side as well. In his “affair” with Dolly, and his failure to further develop their relationship, he’s perhaps had a fortunate escape. The Thatchams in general so obviously scorn him, and Dolly herself is so reluctant to acknowledge any sort of affection or lasting committment to their prior dalliance, that we must accept the obvious. That is, that a Dolly-Joseph alliance was never a real option.
Or possibly not.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a rather gloriously intriguing little bit of literature in that the speculations it spawns are endless. I’m going to quit right here with it, at least for now, but it’s been great fun kicking ideas around regarding what the author intended, and how we’re supposed to read her characters and the seething back story.
Thank you for initiating this discussion, Simon!
And to everyone else who has been much prompter in posting their reviews, your thoughts were most fascinating and beautifully presented. I am in awe of the clever people who post on these topics; you find the most intriguing angles and nooks and crannies to illuminate; thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts!
Here’s the link to the post which kickstarted my discovery of this arcane author: