Well, Bloomsbury have done it again. I’m starting to sound increasingly like a self-appointed marketing director (and I do feel a little responsible for Miss Hargreaves, which I’ll be writing about later in the week) but I can’t help it when the titles they’re reprinting are just so darn good. Today I’m talking about Love’s Shadow by Ada Leverson, first published in 1908.
Elaine at Random Jottings has been an online-friend for over five years, and I read her blog everyday – as she has said in one of her latest posts, we have the same opinions of almost every book, especially when it comes to the first half of the 20th century. And when I discovered that she’d recommended Love’s Shadow to Bloomsbury for their Bloomsbury Group reprint series, I knew I was in for a treat.
The novel is the first in a trilogy called The Little Ottleys (perhaps more will be forthcoming from Bloomsbury?) and the Ottleys in question are Edith and Bruce, married for a few years. Elaine, in her recent review, charmingly and accurately, describes Bruce as Mr. Pooter without the charm – I think his character can be summed up by this:
‘He often wrote letters beginning “Sir, I feel it my duty,” to people on subjects that were no earthly concern of his.’
Edith is obviously fond of him, and parries his ridiculous jibes and moans with a light-hearted wit which is both very amusing to read and an act of supernatural tolerance. Bruce really is the most ghastly imaginable husband, obsessed with being granted his due ‘reverence’ – from his son, his parents, his wife, and more or less everyone else. And like most preposterous characters, he is exceedingly vain. A fabulously witty chapter (Chapter 27, fact fans) chronicles his report of a first foray into amateur dramatics. In later chapters he devotes most of his time and energy to the two lines he has been given, but Chp.27 is so cleverly structured, a vignette of his vanity, self-delusion, and inability to tell a story, that I wish I could reproduce it in full.
This marriage lends the trilogy its name, but Love’s Shadow follows a flock of others, in an amusingly complex array of romantic entanglements, unrequited attachments, and refused proposals. (To set the tone, the union of Lady and Charles Cannon is explained peripherally thus: ‘Having become engaged to her through a slight misunderstanding in a country house, Sir Charles had not had the courage to explain away the mistake.’) Hyacinth Verney is the centre of romantic mishaps, the sort of character who can say, with equanimity; ‘I quite agree with you that it would be rather horrid to know exactly how electricity works’. Perhaps because she is attractive in the way that women seemed to be in 1908 – when introduced to a Mrs. Raymond, the latter ‘looked at her with such impulsive admiration that she dropped a piece of cake.’
How to describe the web? Hyacinth loves impulsive Cecil who loves the impressive Mrs. Raymond who falls for Cecil’s uncle. Sir Charles is Hyacinth’s ward, but also quite smitten by her – as is, we suspect through the disapproval, Bruce. And then there’s Hyacinth’s female companion Anne… Love’s Shadow is flung in so many directions that it’s more or less pitch black – except of course Love’s Shadow isn’t. You can tell that Ms. Leverson was a friend of Oscar Wilde – she is consistently witty, though without his love of epigrams, and the novel sparkles with good-humoured teasing, joie de vivre, and clever plotting. On the back of this edition, alongside Elaine’s recommendation, Barry Humphries perspicaciously compares Ada Leverson to Jane Austen and Saki.
Another Bloomsbury Group reprint, another must-read. If you’ve been holding out, just give in and buy the lot – it’s a library of witty, wise, brilliant books which will stand the test of time, because they already have stood the test of time. And once more, kudos to Penelope Beech and her cover illustrations – both cover and Ex Libris page include silhouette illustrations of representative scenes from the novel, and add to the charm of this exceptional series. Thank you Elaine, thank you Bloomsbury.