Early warning – there is a giveaway right at the bottom of this post!
That Rachel (Book Snob) is pretty scary, isn’t she? I knew she loved Ann Bridge’s Illryian Spring (1935), and so dropped her an email to let her know I’d found my own copy. Minutes later I found myself under house arrest, surrounded by armed policemen and ferocious guard dogs, and the recipient of dozens of death threats – if I didn’t immediately drop everything, read Illyrian Spring, and post a positive review of it. Right now I’m in a dungeon, blindfolded, typing away with a gun held against my temple…
Gosh, that took a macabre turn, didn’t it? What I MEANT to say was that Rachel thought I should definitely read Illyrian Spring before the end of April – which I duly did, it’s just taken me a while to get around to writing about it. In return, I told Rachel she should read the (much shorter) novel The Love Child by Edith Olivier by the end of April. How’s that going, Rach, hmm?
But I am only teasing, of course. I am very grateful that Rachel pointed me in the direction of Illyrian Spring (I gave you a copy of The Love Child – just sayin’) because it’s a beautiful novel.
Grace Kilmichael – known also as Lady K – feels unappreciated by her husband Walter, daughter Linnet and sons Nigel and Teddy. As the novel opens, she has escaped off on the Orient Express – hoping to evade discovery, it is perhaps foolish to choose this mode of transport, ‘but Lady Kilmichael was going to Venice, and she lived in a world which knew no other way of getting to Venice than to travel by the Simplon Orient Express.’ That sets the scene for Grace – one to whom custom and good fortune are equally good companions. In many novels this would be enough to dismiss her out of hand, but Ann Bridge is no inverted snob (in fact, she is often simply a snob) and Grace is undoubtedly the heroine of the novel from the outset. She is a talented painter whose family treat her paintings as an amusing hobby; she is intelligent, sensitive to others, and bewitched by the beauty of life and adventure. And she’s off on an adventure.
I’m not going to pretend to understand the geography of Europe. I hadn’t heard of most of the places she went, but I think they’re probably mostly Italian. To be honest, I didn’t really care. Seeing the sights through Grace’s eyes was enough for me – much of the novel simply documents her travels, and reflections upon her life and family. And her affection, maternal friendship with Nicholas (I’ll get on to him in a bit).
By rights, I shouldn’t have liked Illyrian Spring as much as I did. You know me and descriptions of landscapes – and Bridge’s novel is crammed full with descriptions of scenery, buildings, ruins, water, nature, everything. Grace even carries a travel guide around with her – a form of writing to which I am allergic. But how could I not be swept away by this?
But nature in Dalmatia is singularly open-handed, and distributes beauties as well as wonders with lavish impartiality. Within a few hundred paces of the source of Ombla they came on a thing which Grace was to remember all her life, as much for its beauty as its incredibility. The road here swung round to the right, pushed out towards the valley by a spur of the mountainside; some distance above the road the slopes of this spur rose steeply, broken by ledges and shallow gullies, the rocks of the usual tone of silver pear-colour. And all over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully-opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its natural habitat. Now to see an English garden-flower smothering a rocky mountain-side is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver-colour and the flowers a silvery-blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well be content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.
There are a few, a very few, authors who manage to write about the visual in ways which focus upon characters’ emotions and their responses, even if this isn’t stated explicitly, and that works for me. I’m thinking the moment when Jude looks out over Christminster in Jude the Obscure, and more or less every moment of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. Ann Bridge joins that select few, for me. Those of you without my natural-description-qualms will adore this novel all the more.
And I promised you Nicholas, didn’t I? A less likely hero you’ll be hard-pressed to find. Blustery, fairly rude, a victim to indigestion, self-pleased – and with a very red complexion, to boot – Nicholas meets Grace when she is trying to copy down an intricate engraving for her son. Nicholas doesn’t think she’s doing it right, and eventually insists upon doing it himself – and he does it very accurately. Somehow this is the beginning of their travels together – and I wouldn’t know how to describe their relationship and discussions. I know some people (*cough*, Rachel) love Nicholas, and while I never wholly warmed to him, I did love Grace and Nicholas together. Not romantically, you understand, but as companions who discuss everything under the sun, and appreciate the beauty they discover together. Grace becomes something of a mentor to Nicholas, as he seeks to develop his own artistic talent, and prove to his parents that he can pursue a career as a painter, rather than an architect. Some of the novel’s most interesting sections come, though, when Grace begins to tire of Nicholas, but is far too caring and kind to tell him so. That’s when Bridge’s writing is at its subtlest, and most perceptive – inching through changes in their relationship in a very believable manner. Bridge’s style of narrative is the sort which does not lend itself to plot synopses, and is incredibly difficult to do justice – everything and nothing happens. Like many – maybe even all – great novels, the story does not matter so much as the way in which it is told.
At heart, Illyrian Spring could be considered a deeply feminist novel. Grace’s emancipation happens so quietly and with so few signs of open rebellion that it would might seem understated – but there is incredible strength in passages like this:
Married women so often become more an institution than a person – to their families a wife or a mother, to other people the wife or the mother of somebody else. Apart from her painting, Grace Kilmichael had been an institution for years. She didn’t mind it; she hadn’t really noticed it; but when Nicholas Humphries started treating her as a person, being interested in her as herself, ‘Lady K.’, and not as Nigel’s or Teddy’s or Linnet’s mother, or as the brilliant Sir Walter Kilmichael’s nice wife, she did notice it. She found it something quite new and rather delightful. And entirely without conscious intention, without being aware of it, the presentation of herself which she was making up to Nicholas was, in some subtle way, more personal and less ‘institutional’ than it would have been if she had met him in her London house, as a friend of Linnet’s or Nigel’s.
Illyrian Spring is not without its faults. There is a persistent intellectual snobbery which has a stranglehold on the novel – people must always have the best, and be the best, and there is apparently no sense in doing things simply for enjoyment. The novel seems to suggest that only those with genius at painting should ever wield a paintbrush. Nicholas himself decides he’ll only help people looking for directions because ‘these people were intelligent, much more so than most – he might as well go down with them.’ This constant thread of snobbery felt a bit like poison dropping steadily upon bowers of beautiful flowers, damaging what the novel could have been. If Bridge could have dialled this down, Illyrian Spring would be as charming as The Enchanted April, and even more substantial.
As it is, even with this fault (which some may not perceive as a fault, maybe) Illyrian Spring is a delicious gem of a novel. Grace Kilmichael and Nicholas are unlikely companions whose companionship would be impossible to doubt – and both are utterly genuine and believable characters, far more complex than I could delineate in this review. I am very indebted to Rachel for the joy of this novel – and if I found it joyful, I am certain that those of you who like their books to be like travel guides will fall so deeply in love with Bridge’s novel that you will frame copies of it around the house, and name your first child after it.
So, Rachel, there you go – many thanks. Now, The Love Child…
I have a spare copy of this to give away – I spotted a nice edition in a bookshop, and swooped upon it, which means I’m now giving away my tatty old Penguin edition. I do warn you, it is very tatty – the cover is taped on, and the spine is so tightly bound that reading the far side of each page requires effort. It’s a reading copy only – but Illyrian Spring is difficult to track down, so anybody who can cope with the poor condition and would like to read it, just pop your name in the comments – along with your favourite season, in honour of the novel’s title. Mine, suitably enough, is spring.