A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.
My rating: 10/10
2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.
This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.
All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.
A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.
Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.
This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.
From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:
In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.
Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).
The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …
A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.
‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT
‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL
The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.
I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.
The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.
The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.
All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.
I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.
For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.
Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.
Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.