Firstly, just thought I’d let you know that I’m back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.
Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled. I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there’s no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive. However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps – which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone’s ethos. Today’s book is at the light, frothy end of the scale – the book I’ll review tomorrow is serious and important. I’m very glad to have read both.
My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it’s been on my large pile of books I’m looking forward to reading – especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens’ semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet. But haven’t yet, somehow, read Mariana. Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those – gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower’s lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)
Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:
When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety. She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation. In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes. Having recently read V.S. Pritchett’s complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise’s husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain. Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards. Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits – every marriage in the novel has at least one ‘bad’un’, and sometimes two. On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice. Here are the various daughters and families:
1.) Miriam – sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel. Husband Arthur – cross, irascibile. Daughter Ellen – sensitive, withdrawn, kind. Other children Simon and Judy – young, excitable.
2.) Eva – bohemian. Lover David – unreliable.
3.) Anne – lazy. Husband Frank – adorable.
I’m being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost. It just isn’t a finely-drawn, perceptive novel – it’s light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining. It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton’s novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art. Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.
Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre. Chief amongst these is Louise’s situation – being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes. In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story – in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking. Serious themes do not a serious novel make. Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening. In fact, I’m trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy – from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery. I think it’s the same experience one has when watching a soap opera – the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it’s impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.
All of which sounds like I’m damning Monica Dickens with faint praise – but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative. Dickens’ writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character – just one surrounded by characters who aren’t particularly. And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone? It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel. It’s the light end of the Persephone scale, but it’s perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix. Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers… and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.