Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The necessity of looking as if she were used to and even wearied by this sort of thing weighed heavily on her

she bent over the menu, and gave orders that trembled on the edge of audibility to a waiter whom she appeared not to see...

That's pretty great, that line, that observation. It's from Book II of Rebecca West's The Judge, a novel I've been slowly reading for about three weeks now. Two of those weeks were interrupted by a trip to the Netherlands during which I did precious little reading of anything but menus and road markers, which is a not a good way to learn conversational Dutch but otherwise a fine way to spend one's time.

The Judge continues to strike me as very Lawrence, and so a sort of precursor to a lot of Byatt's work, which is fine. The prose is quite dense and full of pointed social observation, this being a social novel in a lot of ways (it's also a Gothic romance in the tradition of the Bronte sisters):
The air of the little quadrangle was fairly dense with the yellowed rays of extravagant light, and the walls were divided not into shops and houses, but into allegorical panels representing pleasure. They had stopped outside a florist's, in whose dismantled window a girl in black stretched out a long arm towards the last vase of chrysanthemums, which pressed against the glass great curled polls almost as large as her own head. It was impossible to imagine a Scotswoman practising so felinely elastic an attitude before the open street, or possessing a face so ecstatic with pertness, or finding herself inside a dress which, though black, disclaimed all intention of being mourning and sought rather, in its clinging economy, to be an occasion of public rejoicing.

Inconceivable, too, in Edinburgh, the place beside it, where behind plate glass walls, curtained with flimsy brise-bises that were as a ground mist, men and women ate and drank under strong lights with a divine shamelessness. It couldn't happen up there. There were simply not the people to do it. It might be tried at first; but because middle-aged men would constantly turn to middle-aged women and say, "Catch me bringing you here again, Elspeth. It's a nice thing to have your dinner with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street watching every mouthful you take," and because young men would as constantly have turned to young women with the gasp, "I'm sure I saw father passing," it would have been a failure. But here it was a success. The sight was like loud, frivolous music. And on the other side there was a theatre with steps leading up to a glittering bow-front, and a dark wall spattered with the white squares of playbills, under which a queue of people watched with happy and indifferent faces a ragged reciter whose burlesque extravagance of gesture showed that one was now in a country more tolerant of nonsense than the North.
I love that the first view Ellen has of London is made up of claims of pleasure, rather than of actual pleasurable things. It is a continuation of the class argument West is making in Book I, but this time there is a rebuttal from one from the moneyed class:
She said in her rapid, inarticulate murmur, "They don't strike me as being particularly happy."

Ellen was taken aback, and said in the tones of a popular preacher, "Then what are they doing here—feasting?"

"I suppose they're here because it's on the map and so are they," she answered almost querulously. "They'd go anywhere else if one told them it was where they ought to be. Good children, most people. Anxious to do the right thing. Don't you think?"
An accusation of a different sort, that.

Maybe later this week I'll post a pic or two from the Netherlands.

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