I’ve been meaning to read something by E. Arnot Robertson for years, and as part of Reading Presently I picked up Cullum (1928), which my lovely friend Clare gave to me, it being one of her favourite books. Being a tale of a young woman’s first doomed love affair (we are told in the first line that it is doomed) and featuring my bête noire, fox-hunting, I was a little nervous… but needn’t have been. Cullum is really good – moving, engaging, and – most importantly – witty. A novel about love and hunting without humour would have been unbearable.
The girl in question – possibly the one looking poignantly to her left on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic – is 19 year old Esther Sieveking, half-English, half-French, and entirely ready for a sexual awakening which will take her beyond her circle in Surrey.
Which of us could fail to empathise with this statement – one which probably brought most of us to the blogosphere in the first place?
I was desperately eager to find a companion who could enter into the intangible world of books and ideas, where I spent half my time.
Esther thinks she might have found a way out when she learns that a poet, one Mrs. Cole, is living nearby… My mean side emerges in my love of fictive character assassinations, particularly those given in measured, well-paced prose. If it helps, I share four out of five of Mrs. Cole’s listed traits:
I learnt in ten minutes that she was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a non-smoker and an anti-vivisectionist, and that she had innumerable other fads. She was of the type that should have had many children, instead of only one son and many affectations.
She is a poet. Nobody likes mocking writers like writers, and here is a demolition of Mrs. Cole’s poetry:
I was shown a collection of worn cuttings that had become illegible at the folds through constant handling. They contained sad little pieces of verse which always referred vaguely to ‘you’ in the last line. ‘You’ had either jilted her of passed away; it was impossible to tell which, but they were all melancholy and had the most comprehensive titles; ‘Life,’ dealt with in eight of ten lines; ‘Love,’ inaptly, being a little longer.
Mrs. Cole isn’t herself a very important character, but she does provide the means by which Esther meets Cullum Hayes. I don’t seem to have bookmarked any paragraphs which describe him, but essentially he is perfect for Esther. Handsome, amusing, and persistent, he speaks romantically when needed and flippantly when needed. Considering the other potential suitors in her life have, to this point, been of the damp, somewhat pathetic variety, the arrival of Cullum is easily enough to sweep her off her feet, and (seemingly) she him his. (That ending of that sentence almost makes sense, and was too fun to write to ignore.) (So was the ending of that one.) And, boy, does it get passionate – particularly for 1928.
Did I want him! Many times, when I was with him and when I was alone, at nights, I had longed for him, almost faint for a second with the desire for his kisses, which I could only imagine. Love, feeding on itself, had grown greatly. Cullum obsessed me; all of me, mind and body.
So why did this not aggravate me, as pontifications on love are apt to do? It was the humour which surrounded them. Robertson is very amusing on the travails of working for a rubbish women’s magazine if one has any literary pretensions, and also quite biting of the huntin’ fraternity (Esther does hunt, but hates the idea of it at the same time.) Here’s a sample which made me smile…
I saw a great deal of him. He formed a habit of dropping in two or three evenings a week at my boarding-house. Sometimes we talked, or if I had brought back some work to finish from the office, he read or smoked in the arm-chair in my bedsitting-room, to the thrilled horror of several elderly boarders of both sexes, who were convinced that he was my lover, since he had been allowed into a room which undeniably held my bed, even though it might be disguised as a sofa during the day. That was conclusive. The old ladies believed the worst because they secretly hoped it was true; the dear old gentleman because, in the virile period of his youth, it would have been so.
And, of course, Cullum turns out to be a bad’un – a liar and delusional fraud, and repeat offender at that. I don’t know why Robertson chose to reveal that in the opening line – perhaps to avoid the trap of the novel being structured like a romantic penny dreadful? – but it gives Cullum a structure oddly akin to The End of the Affair – except we see the beginning, middle, and end, all the while knowing how it will end.
Having compared Cullum to The End of the Affair, I should point out the difference that tone makes. The structure and the emotions may have significant overlap, but Cullum – for all its passion and anguish – still felt like a fun, light book with dark moments. The End of the Affair, on the other hand – even with the comic detective – was a dark book with light moments. And here ends a spontaneous comparison of two books I doubt anybody has compared before!
Thanks, Clare, for another gem. I really should immediately read all the books you give me, shouldn’t I?