on 16 November 2000
It would be easy to read a typical description of this book and come away with the impression that it is just another heartwarming ladies' novel. Well, anyone who knows Rebecca West's work could tell you that is simply not possible. In fact, this extraordinary and beautiful novel, the first of a trilogy sadly left unfinished at the author's death, is a profound meditation on the trials of being exceptional in a world that values only mediocrity. The writing is compelling, the characters more real than one's own friends, the view of childhood precise and unsentimental. If you trade a hundred bestsellers for this book, you are getting a bargain.
on 24 March 2003
It would be easy from the publisher's blurb to deduce that this is a family saga spanning three generations. But this is literature. True, it (and the other novels in the trilogy) are full of fascinating characters and events, but there is so much more to it. It reads as an autobiography, and indeed it is to some extent autobiographical. Unlike anything else I've read, it mingles details about life in a poverty-stricken middle-class household around 1900 with themes of love, religion, death, spiritualism, good and evil, education and art.
One of the best books I've ever read, focussing on the shabby genteel Aubrey family, living in Edwardian London. Father is adored: he builds exquisite dolls' houses and tells the children of his own youth. But as narrator Rose observes
'Because I was his daughter I could not have known all of him, there was that continent in which I could not travel, the waste of time before I was born and he already existed. I could not have been a child with him, I could not have been with him and his brother when they knelt on the dry red beech-leaves, with their laughing faces pressed against the pulsing silken necks of their crouched and panting ponies, the tree trunks rising sharp silver above them to the blue October haze.'
Yet despite his intelligence as a newspaper editor, Father constantly speculates and keeps his family in penury.
It is Mother- a former concert pianist- who keeps the family together. Music forms a major part of the book, with Mary and Rose devoted to their piano practice. Elder sister Cordelia gives violin recitals but cannot see that she lacks true musical talent.
I was struck by West's ability to explain so clearly the difference between an 'eccentric' family (all but one of whom love their life) and the 'ordinary' folk around them.
'Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called 'common'. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other...We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.'
Also of the difficulties the eccentric have in integrating:
'They were incapable of getting on terms with their fellow creatures on the plane where most of us find that easy. My mother could not dress herself to go out of her house tidily enough to avoid attracting hostile stares, she could not speak to strangers except with such naivete that they thought her a simpleton, or with such subtlety that they thought her mad. She was never much more negotiable than William Blake. My father was unable to abandon to the slightest degree his addiction to unpunctuality, swarthy and muttering scorn, and insolvency.'
Wonderful, wonderful book- do read it!
on 3 January 2014
This is a delightful read. It is set in the early 20th century and is loosely based on parts of the author's own life and tells the story of the Aubrey family from the viewpoint of one of the daughters, Rose.
They are a gifted, highly cultured and literate family, but as poor as church mice. The mother, Clare, was formerly a celebrated concert pianist while her husband, Piers, the disgraced son of Irish landowners, is utterly charming and brilliant but an inveterate gambler.
Despite their limited means they really are the most hospitable people who willingly share what little they have with their guests and anyone who is in need of help.
Every character is painted vividly, from the hapless elder sister Cordelia, who insists on playing the violin despite her lack of talent, obvious to all other family members, to their awful cousin, Jock, who grossly exaggerates his Glaswegian roots and, despite his comfortable income, keeps his wife and daughter so short of money they are obliged to take in sewing to make ends meet.
There is, however, no sense of self pity or misery in this book. Aware that they are misfits at school, the children all accept their poverty as a temporary setback, convinced that when they grow up they will be sufficiently able to earn for themselves and to provide for their parents. Even their long-suffering mother constantly counts her blessings and extracts pleasure from the world around her.
In fact it is thoroughly uplifting read.
Originally intended as the first in a trilogy or tetralogy of novels about Rose and Mary Aubrey and their cousin Rosamond, this is a wonderful story of a family living in South London in the years before Word War I. Piers Aubrey, a brilliant man but a reckless gambler and womanizer, has lost positions as a journalist both in South Africa and Edinburgh. Despite his unreliability, Piers has many admirers, and one of them, a Jewish philanthropist called Mr Morpugo, gets him a job as editor of a South London paper. Piers, his wife Clare (a former concert pianist forced to give up her career due to ill health), and their children Cordelia (a not very gifted violinist), Rose and Mary (who have inherited their mother's musical talent) and Richard Quin (the adored only son) move to a house in South London (possibly, from the descriptions, in Streatham) which formerly belonged to Piers's relatives. There, the family form a close friendship with Clare's old friend Constance, married to Clare's crazy cousin, and with Constance's daughter Rosamond, a girl who seems a little slow on the surface but has an instinctive human intelligence and a wonderful way of dealing with people.
The story covers the Aubrey family's lives from the move to London to Mary and Rose's winning places at music college. The writing is absolutely beautiful, and West evokes the intense world of the imaginative child beautifully. Her descriptions of London, and her writing on music and literature and their power is wonderful, and her characters extremely memorable and original (even if Richard Quin may seem a little good to be true, and Cordelia a little too obtuse and unpleasant at times; West did have a slight tendency to see things in black and white - I'm also not sure why the family revere Piers quite so much when he behaves so badly). West certainly knows how to tell a good story, and while the pace of this one is fairly leisurely, one never gets bored or feels the novel is too long. All in all, this book makes one feel that West is extremely underestimated as a novelist. Definitely required reading for anyone interested in Edwardian England, family relationships and music.
on 6 October 2014
This is the third time i have bought this book as a gift to my friends. This is a truly wonderful stoery of a Bohemian family life by rebecca West. The children in the family are a delight in themselves.
on 19 May 2016
I adored this book, my first Rebecca West. Family life, but what a family, what incredibly strong and unusual individuals? The fact that the narrator is a young girl is amazing, but it never becomes mawkish or childish. Still to read the next two in this series.
on 28 December 2010
This book fell into my hands by accident - and I am so pleased that it did. I loved it!
The story centres on the Aubrey family and is told through the eyes of Rose, one of three daughters. The family is musical and cultured, but bohemian. They have middle class roots, but struggle financially.
I loved the description of the era, giving me an intriguing insight into how things were for a middle class, musical and slightly bohemian family in the late 1800s. As Rebecca West used her own childhood to inform the story, the accuracy of the detail cannot be doubted and is so refreshing when we are surrounded by so many novels that are set in the past but, despite meticulous research, can rarely completely enter the minds and lives of people in earlier times.
My favourite description is close to the beginning of the book. The family is in Edinburgh and will shortly leave for London. They leave Edinburgh station and travel towards Morningside, a route that I myself have travelled frequently over the past 25 years:
'The tramcar rocked up The Mound with the free camelish motion of trolley cars, swung round the curve at the top and, and shambled over George the Fourth Bridge, the bridge which fascinated us children because it crossed no river but canyons of slums... We got out at the head of Meadow Walk, and as we went down it we saw the dark blocks of the Infirmary among the reddening trees'.
And there is much, much more. For me, this book was deeply satisfying and very interesting. I am now looking forward to reading more of Rebecca West's work.
on 31 October 2015
An delightful rememberance of childhood, music, and poverty (in a well to do family). Full of excellent descriptive pictures in words of a time long past. It makes one think how childhood has changed in the last 100 years.
Beware, the ending is sudden. At about 7/8ths near the end it ends!. The last bit is a chapter from the next book!
on 17 August 2015
Well written, extremely interesting, especially in the comments on composers, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. but a very disappointing ending - I went back a few pages to see if I had missed something but, no, it just stopped.