Posts Tagged ‘Susan and Joanna’

susan and joanna elizabeth cambridge 1935 001Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1935. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1935. Hardcover. 348 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a re-read.

When I read Susan and Joanna first time round earlier this year I remember feeling a bit put out by the events of the ending (I thought that the author pulled her punches somewhat and drew back from where she could have gone with it), but upon the re-read, already knowing how the climactic final scene actually ends, I was able to approach the story with a slower reading pace and a more balanced view.

I liked it rather better the second time round; Elizabeth Cambridge packs a lot into her novels; perhaps too much to really absorb in that first eager reading, when one is mostly concerned with finding out what will happen next and reads quickly, passing over the finer points without proper appreciation.

I know I have at least one reader who is keen to peruse a detailed account of this novel; I am wondering how much of the plot I should divulge, because chances of people actually finding this book to read themselves are slim. (Coming back to add – it’s a non-issue now – I’ve found an online version! Link down below, at the end of the post.)

This is a very rare novel by this writer. Her stellar Hostages to Fortune which has been reprinted often enough to remain in broad circulation is much better known and much easier to find. Susan and Joanna is not as compelling a read as HTF, but it is very good in its own way; I think it is a great shame that it is so scarce. Such is too often the way with these older writers; one of their books receives the full reprint and promotion treatment (and usually because it is a very worthwhile representative of the author’s output) while the rest of the titles languish in out-of-print oblivion.

Susan and Joanna is a deeply rural book; a good half of it takes place on a farm, the rest in a small village and in the surrounding countryside. Though the two main locations featured – the farm of Node and the village of Bract – are purely fictional, the setting is of a particular region of England, among the Midland Downs. Though Cambridge does not dwell in an undue degree upon descriptions of the scenery, she manages to portray the physical beauty of the landscape with great sympathy and clarity. One feels that this novel is a tribute to an area she knew very well, and loved very deeply.

Motherless Susan has been raised in the proper fashion – that is, off to boarding school from an early age – by her introvert father, a lawyer who gets through life by arranging things to function with the least possible disturbance to himself. Now Susan is twenty and at last back at home “for good”, but neither she nor her father have yet found their rhythm. They walk delicately around each other, being careful not to raise any subjects which might lead to an excess of emotion or potential household turmoil.

Susan has never been trained for – or indeed shown any inclination for –  an actual job or “career.” She is poised for the next step in her life, but hesitates on the brink. Marriage is an obvious and socially acceptable choice, and Susan has indeed considered marriage to the most suitable local candidate, Garry, nephew of the owner of the large farm Node, Miss Laura Coppen, the village’s aristocratic grande dame. Susan has been friendly with Garry since childhood and their relationship is now ripening into something deeper. Each meeting of the two is imbued with speculation, by Susan and Garry themselves, and by the deeply interested onlookers of this rural microcosm they all reside in.

But there is something which holds her back. Garry is just too easy-going and avoiding-of-trouble; he tends to slip through life allowing others to make his decisions for him. Even his growing conviction that Susan would make a suitable mistress at Node owes something to his grandmother’s approval of Susan’s impeccable manners, good breeding, and undoubted personal charm. Susan senses that Garry’s admiration and easygoing courtship of her is more superficial than deep; Garry doesn’t give it all that much thought himself, until forced to by Susan’s ultimate rejection of his advances.

Bruised by Susan’s unexpected refusal, Garry turns to the third member of their childhood-friends triumvirate, vicarage daughter Joanna. Joanna is emphatically Susan’s opposite in every essential way. Apple of her mother’s eye, Joanna has been encouraged to strive after success from babyhood, and her already self-assured nature combined with hard-won scholastic success makes her thoroughly impatient with wishy-washy Susan. “Naturally bossy” well describes Joanna, and Susan puts up with her patronization with good grace, though she is well aware of how much contempt her erstwhile friend actually holds her in.

Upon Garry’s proposal, something of a rebound impulse triggered by hurt pride, Joanna sets aside her career ambitions and agrees to take on Garry and Node instead, a move inspired not just by affection for Garry, but a sense of one-upmanship towards Susan. Joanna can’t help but feel that she has scored a major point in an unspoken rivalry that has persisted since the two were young.

Susan meanwhile meets and is courted by a rising young pathologist; she marries him and has a child. Upon her husband’s departure on a temporary posting in Canada, Susan moves back to Bract with her baby, and she and Joanna start to rebuild the structure of their never very strong but now sadly deteriorated friendship into something much more mature and mutually rewarding.

Joanna’s marriage to Garry and her new position in the rural hierarchy has led to a certain amount of emotional turmoil and occasional strife as the general local consensus is that the vicarage daughter has gotten rather above herself, putting herself in the shoes of the now-dead Miss Laura. Meanwhile Susan is viewed with benevolent patronage. No one has seen her husband; the unspoken assumption among the majority of the villagers is that she has been abandoned by this mythical man, and has sought unwed-mother refuge in her childhood home.

We follow Susan and Joanna through the first years of their very different marriages fraught with very different challenges. The two women’s lives have diverged greatly but are now running parallel, with life-altering consequences to both of them, and those in their closest circles.

What a richly written novel this rather somber story makes. Elizabeth Cambridge sketches her characters at first with the utmost artistic economy, adding layers of detail as the story progresses, until we fully understand what makes each person tick.

Cambridge’s depiction of the rural atmosphere is also utterly believable, and her observations regarding the animals so pervasive and important in such a setting equal her insights into the minds and motivations of the human inhabitants.

A criticism I read on a recent Persephone forum regarding Elizabeth Cambridge’s style was that nothing much happens in her books; they are merely a series of personal observations and not very dramatic domestic events. Quite true, when one steps back and looks at the format of the novels with an analytical eye. But the events are such that we can completely relate to them from our own mostly not very dramatic lives.

Personal relationships, love affairs, marriage, the birth of children, death, social structures and constantly changing and evolving outside events affecting private lives; these are all viable topics for discussion, and their fictional treatment when well handled – as they are in the case of this writer – can lead one into greater insights of one’s own emotional life and personal responses to the shared everyday human events which never truly change, no matter what the calendar year reads.

What a good writer she was; what a dreadful shame it is that five of her six novels are so very rare.

But look at what I have found!

Here is a scanned complete version of  Susan and Joanna, from Hathi Trust. It may be read online, or downloaded as page by page pdf files, if one is so inclined to do so. (And has hours of time to dedicate to the project!)

Reading from a screen is never quite as conducive to true enjoyment as sitting back with the actual book in one’s hands, but it is certainly better than no access to the material at all; I hope that this link brings pleasure to those others of you who are on a quest for more of Elizabeth Cambridge’s fine yet almost forgotten novels of the 1930s.

First three pages below, by way of being a teaser if you are considering whether you’d like to bother following up on this one.


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