As For Me And My House – Sinclair Ross

Well, I hope you’ll still be having a wander around Shiny New Books, but that won’t (of course) stop me writing reviews here on Stuck-in-a-Book – although they may quieten down a bit when Issue 2 starts to loom!  (Incidentally, we’re keen to get lots of bloggers writing pieces for us – contact me on simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk, or all of us at info[at]shinynewbooks.co.uk if you’re interested.)

And onto a book that I’ve been reading for about six months – As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, kindly given to me by… someone.  I think Thomas at My Porch – certainly he is a huge fan.  Am I?  Hmm.  I don’t know.  This is one of those cases where I know the book is very good… but I didn’t very much enjoy reading it.

As For Me and My House (1941) takes the form of a woman’s diary from provincial Canada – but Diary of a Provincial Lady this is not.  True, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife are the central characters – Philip Bentley and his (anonymous?) narrator wife – but that’s where the similarities end.  Basically, the narrator’s life is miserable.  The small town is rude and ungrateful for the hard work her husband does.  He, in turn, has lost his faith and wishes he were a painter.  They are poor, their marriage is rocky, and dissatisfaction soaks every word of the novel.

He’s a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he’s mindful of it.  I’m a failure too, a small-town preacher’s wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be – but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember.  To have him notice me, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that’s all I want or need.  It arranges my world for me, strengthens and quickens it, makes it immune to all worlds.
Well, as you can see, the writing is beautiful.  There is a deep and emotional richness to the way Ross writes.  I’m not sure it benefited from being in the diary format – it would have worked equally well, and probably rather more convincingly, simply as a first person narrative – but he certainly offers a fully-realised voice.  Just as convincing are the husband and (later) sort-of-adopted son, although I wonder if Ross intends us to believe the narrator to be as perceptive as she seems.

Here’s another beautiful, dispiriting passage:

The sand and dust drifts everywhere.  It’s in the food, the bed-clothes, a film on the book you’re reading before you can turn the page.  In the morning it’s half an inch deep on the window sills.  Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening.  It begins to make an important place for itself in the routine of the day.  I watch the little drifts form.  If at dusting time they’re not quite high enough I’m disappointed, put off the dusting sometimes half an hour to let them grow.  But if the wind has been high and they have outdrifted themselves, then I look at them incredulous, and feel a strange kind of satisfaction, as if such height were an achievement for which credit was coming to me.
That rather aptly describes how it felt reading the novel.  Melancholy piled on melancholy.  It swept through all the pages, in every sentence, almost in every word.  The more I read, the more I felt outdrifted by it.  I don’t demand novels of unswerving cheeriness, but… surely life isn’t as bad as all this?  (“But a man’s tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him.”)  It was wearying.  Beautiful, but wearying.

Of course, I read As For Me and My House as someone who has lived in a vicarage for many years, and whose father is still a working vicar (and mother a working vicar’s wife).  I am well aware that it isn’t always easy – that some parishioners can be difficult or aggressive or ungrateful.  In this novel it is the purportedly faith-filled whose hypocrisy stands out; in real life, it is just as likely to be the thoughtless atheist who tells you he’d like the church to burn down, or the teenager who thinks the vicar’s sons are fair game to shout abuse at in the street.  But Ross gives only the tiniest mention (in Mrs Bird) of the positivity that comes with the profession.  The strangers who are kind to you as soon as you arrive in a new village, the people who selflessly give up their time to help with kids’ events and so forth.  There is a world of literature bemoaning the claustrophobia of the small town – which needs to be balanced by how really lovely it is when people all know each other, care for each other, and let nobody go lonely.

Part of this seems like I just wish that Ross had written a different book.  But I think I could have really loved this one if there were a bit more balance – something more to alleviate the melancholy and hopelessness.  As it is, I do admire As or Me and My House.  Ross is unarguably a brilliant writer.  One I’d definitely recommend to sturdier souls.  And maybe my soul will be sturdier next time I try this one.

12 thoughts on “As For Me And My House – Sinclair Ross

  • April 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm
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    This *definitely* sounds heavy-going Simon. Melancholy is ok, but not if it is unmitigated – there needs to be balance. TBH I can't see myself searching this one out…… :)

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    • April 9, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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      It is one for when you're in the mood for exquisite writing but not too anxious about your mental equilibrium!!

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  • April 9, 2014 at 1:26 pm
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    Argh, all we good Canadian children had to read this one in high school — especially those of us from the area that it is set. I hated it then, and I reread it a few years ago and still dislike it. I'm with you on the relentlessness of it. (though poet Lorna Crozier — also from Saskatchewan — has written a marvellous set of poems called Saving Grace: the Collected Poems of Mrs Bentley, inspired by this book)

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    • April 9, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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      Oh really? I didn't realise it was that well known. But not surprised that you ended up feeling the same away about it as I did, Melwyk…

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  • April 9, 2014 at 2:32 pm
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    It wasn't on my reading list at school, possibly because Toronto is a long way from Saskatchewan, but it certainly never looked like my cup of tea. Perhaps it could be seen as a window on the Depression-era Prairies, but I think my TBR stacks would overwhelm it.

    Thanks for the review, Simon. And Melwyk, the poetry collection sounds enticing.

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    • April 9, 2014 at 8:30 pm
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      Perhaps it could! But I think that there is always kindness – elements of it, at least – wherever the place and whatever the time. Hmm. If the book had been intended to show a portrait of a person's depression, I could understand it better, but the character didn't seem depressed – not how I understand it anyway.

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  • April 9, 2014 at 6:36 pm
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    Living in small town Saskatchewan during the 30s was a melancholy experience. I usually dislike unbalanced novels myself but as a native of the harsh province of Saskatchewan (with a climate slightly worse than Siberia's), I have great respect and affection for Sinclair Ross. His work portrays a certain hard and world the way it really could be during that era. A short story "The Painted Door" made an indelible impression on me. Sad and depressing but a perfect evocation of the harsh prairie landscape and climate and the kind of people and situations it produces.

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    • April 9, 2014 at 8:32 pm
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      Thank you for your interesting comment, Anonymous, it's useful to hear from someone who knows the place well, if not the time (I assume!) But I wonder… surely even the era and the place wouldn't make everyone miserable and hateful all the time?? Perhaps I am less of a cynic than I thought, but I can't imagine anywhere having quite the all-enveloping effect this small town seems to.

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    • April 21, 2014 at 3:14 pm
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      I took the time to reread it and I do understand people's dislike for it and I do think this is the last piece of Canadian literature that should be taught to teenagers. However, on re-reading it I was struck by how sophisticated the novel is: Mrs Bentley is the quintessential unreliable narrator. It is clear that both she and her husband Phillip are both sunk in depression – they are educated, overly-sensitive souls stuck in small-town Saskatchewan during the Depression, when the wind blew away all the soil, thousands lost their farms and thousands more were stuck in jobs they were lucky to have yet led nowhere. Neither are likeable and I would argue that Mrs Bentley is driven by the desire for power and by possessiveness. Everything is bleak because she sees life that way (and it was pretty bleak). She can't recognize a potential friend (the doctor's wife) or lover (Paul) or child (Stephen). In the end, she orchestrates a baby,who she names Phillip, whom she can possess (I pity that baby). Not fun – but less just a portrait of a place and time alone, but of a certain kind of woman living out her obsessions. I do admire it though it is very difficult to like.

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  • April 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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    What I’ve found most enriching is the “generosity of spirit” I’ve discovered when reading the best blogs. Your blog reflects this culture of “sharing”, a culture which seems to lacking in the “real world” but is so present on the internet by those who understand this is a “karmic” two-way exchange of ideas, interests, passions, and support. I thank you for this :)

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  • January 8, 2015 at 6:25 am
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    In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-characteristics-of.html#.VK4hrNKUeRZ

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  • January 15, 2015 at 6:18 am
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    Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VLdYidKUc7U

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