A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell ~ 1959. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Introduction by Virginia Nicholson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-911413-77-6. 236 pages.
My rating: 11/10
A stunning memoir.
I set this book gently down after my mesmerized reading, feeling emotionally battered, deeply moved, sorrowful and joyful at the same time, the last for what it revealed of abundant grace under extraordinary pressure.
Olivia Frances Faviell (Frances Faviell was her pen name) was a successful portrait artist living in London’s Chelsea District when the Second World War started. She had a pleasant flat in a lovely house, with a good view of the Thames through three long front windows, congenial neighbours in the upstairs apartment, and all amenities – shopping, restaurants, entertainment – within easy walking distance. Friends came in and out at all hours, for Frances kept open house, and her prior world travels had made her many acquaintances from various walks of life, many literary and artistic as she was herself.
No one was more awake to her good fortune as was Frances, particularly as she was also very much aware of the gathering clouds of war. Frances had been living in Shanghai in 1937 when the Japanese army invaded, and the influx of wounded soldiers and civilians and the panicked crowds of refugees seeking passage out of the battle area were still fresh in her mind as now, in 1938, European refugees in their turn crowded into England. Many of them, coming into Frances’ particular circle, were Jewish intellectuals and artists deemed personae non gratae in their homelands by the ever-more-powerful Nazi and Fascist regimes.
A year of “phony war” later, in 1939, everyone was just a bit dismissive of all of the preparatory fuss still being made, of the First Aid training and rehearsals, the rather rickety bomb shelters hastily erected in gardens and public parks, of the rumours of food shortages looming on the horizon. Many of the London children evacuated in panicked hurry into the country in 1938 had quietly returned to their homes as the bombs failed to materialize, and a vaguely ominous “normal” prevailed.
All this changed upon the night of September 7, 1940, when the German “blitzkrieg” – The Blitz – began, a relentless 8-month-long bombing of London carried out mostly at night (at first), and, later, almost 24 hours of the day. Though no region of the city was unscathed, Chelsea and its neighbouring districts were particularly hard hit, perhaps because of their location in the very heart of London, and relatively near the seat of government at Westminster.
Frances Faviell had volunteered for Red Cross duties during the build-up to the war, and she undertook first aid training, hoping to qualify as a Registered Nurse, and, though repeatedly turned down as a full-time nurse trainee because of health issues, she was deeply involved in refugee care, first aid response, and, to her dismay, in being assigned the task of piecing together dismembered bodies so they could be sewn into shrouds before burial. The bits and pieces didn’t necessarily have to belong to each other, but the general instruction was to make reasonably complete packets of what was left after explosions and subsequent building collapses.
Frances relates her experiences in a hyper-detailed, clinically accurate tone, but there is an underlying, very appealing, very human passion to her reminiscences of this concentrated and horrific episode of British wartime history.
As much as it is an unflinching recording of shared community experience – it is, as evidenced by its title, a very Chelsea-centric account – A Chelsea Concerto also gives a vivid portrait of the writer herself, her private thoughts and feelings, and those of the eclectic assortment of people in her wartime life.
Frances married her second husband, Richard Parker, in 1940. Her brief account of their wedding day is both poignant and humorous. Due to a sudden daylight raid, none of the guests nor – more importantly! – neither of the witnesses showed up for the ceremony. Out into the street Frances and Richard went, finding two stalwart taxi drivers, who cheerfully acted as signatories to the marriage documents, and then tossed a coin to see who would be the one to drive the newlyweds through the rubble-littered streets to the club where their wedding breakfast was to be held. The air raid having by then tapered off, most of the guest showed up for that, though some of their wedding finery was a bit battered and dusty from hasty passage through the besieged areas.
At a later point in the book, Frances rather casually mentions that she is now pregnant, though it doesn’t seem to affect her continuous activity much, for, in common with so many of the women of the time in similar circumstances, personal discomfort was stoically borne as more urgent activities took precedence.
This is a compelling book, and, I believe, a tremendously important one, for the detailed descriptions it gives of life under bombardment.
Check your squeamishness at the door, fellow readers, for Frances Faviell is not much for euphemisms, and the blood, guts, stench and filth of being on the receiving end of bombs is described in some detail, though never needlessly so; the author never wallows in the horrors, but as they are increasingly ubiquitous to the time and circumstances, they are a crucial element of this memoir.
If I can leave you with a final thought, it is that though this is a deeply sad book – so many people die, or go through heart-rending extremities of loss – it is also a supremely likeable memoir. Frances Faviell, along with her precise and analytical artist’s eye, possessed a strong if slightly caustic sense of humour, and also a certain understanding kindness of observation of her fellow-man which makes A Chelsea Concerto something a little bit extra in its class.
Very highly recommended.