It happens every three months.
Our books were due at the university library.
I was reading a library book, Vita Sackville-West’s The Easter Party, in my sanctum, the pillows propped up, a tea mug on the table, the computer handy for taking notes. I would not see anybody for hours, because the football game was on in the other room. It could have been baseball. Who knew?
An evening of reading.
I peered over my glasses disapprovingly when a family member interrupted.
“Our books are due tomorrow.”
Oh, dear. I had to finish The Easter Party. I had to finish it fast. We are “extra-mural” borrowers–not affiliated with the university–and the fines are expensive. We drive 40 miles every three months (we can renew books for three months) because the library has a remarkable collection. I don’t know what I would do without it.
Although Vita Sackville-West is probably best known for her love affair with Virginia Woolf, she also wrote two very good novels, All Passion Spent (1931) and The Edwardians (1930). (I read them many years ago, so won’t write about them here.) The Garden Party (1953) is uncharacteristically elliptical, reminding me very slightly of the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. The plot: an Easter party over a long weekend may save or destroy an unconventional marriage.
The novel begins in the consciousness of Rose, a beautiful 45-year-old woman with a secret. Her cold husband, Sir Walter, lives for his work as a high-powered lawyer, and when he says he has a meeting that night, Rose says she will dine with someone else. Whether either one of them will be home before bedtime is questionable.
Before Walter goes to work, she sends out tendrils to see if he will tolerate a party over Easter weekend at Anstey, their country home.
She has already invited her unglamorous sister, Lucy, Lucy’s husband, Dick, and their 22-year-old son, Robin. Lady Juliet Quarles, a charming, likable, witty woman known for her affairs with men of all ages, will be there. Walter is polite, but doesn’t really like company.
Later that morning, Gilbert, her brother-in-law, a neurologist, calls and invites himself.
Lady Juliet is hilarious: she likes everybody, calls everybody darling, and is very genial, even though she is known as a shallow socialite. Gilbert pretends on the phone to be intimidated by the thought of meeting her, and when Rose assures her that Juliet is very nice, Gilbert says:
“Are you trying to tell me that Lady Quarles is cosy? I f so , I don’t believe it. Nothing that I have ever heard of her indicates anything of the sort. it is true that my cognisance of her is limited to the piles of illustrated papers, all out of date, which I contemplate only when I visit, in a state of the greatest apprehension, my dentist or my doctor.
Sometimes Sackville-West is witty, other times her narrative is remarkably sad. Rose’s secret is tragic: she is a virgin, because Walter married her for appearances, and told her before their marriage he didn’t want to reproduce. (Why they don’t use condoms or a diaphragm is beyond me. Is Walter gay? One wonders.)
Her physical desire for Walter she had after years of struggle been able to overcome: it was stifled, dead. And, anyway, she had often said to herself, pacing up and down her room at nigh, twisting her hands, throwing her head back, heaving her shoulders, breathing quickly and heavily in an anguish she scarcely understood, since she was sensually unawakened, anyway, she had said to herself, trying to regain control, what does the physical matter? (Walter slept just along the passage; she had only to open her door, slip down the passage and find herself in his darkened room. “Walter?” she would say. “Walter, my darling?” And in another moment she would be in his bed, and all the barriers would come down.) The physical thing did not matter. The poets said so.
Gilbert, who dislikes the way his brother treats Rose, forms a sinister plan to save their marriage. The plan involves Walter’s dog. I was VERY anxious.
Sackville-West changes point-of-view often, writing from inside the heads (in the third-person) of all the characters in the Easter party. The focus is on Rose and Walter.
I very much enjoyed this book. Not great, but very good.
And here’s a picture of the books I checked out at the library today.
Conrad Richter’s A Simple Honorable Man
Steve Yarbrough’s Family Men (a collection of stories by the author of The Realm of Last Chances, my favorite novel of the year)
The East Wind of Love by Compton Mackenzie, author of Sinister Street
Valerie Laken’s Dream House (I know nothing about her: it’s a gamble)