WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

The next post will be on or before Sunday April 28th

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

‘Caroline was certainly pretty, but she looked sullen and extinguished. The most noticeable thing about her was her hair, which was the colour of sherry and probably waved naturally, but it was parted down the middle and plastered into an unbecoming bandeau. Why try to look like a Luini Madonna, when one’s expression is that of a schoolboy who has been kept in on a half holiday?’

Hunt the Slipper (1937) by Violet Trefusis

Somewhere around the mid-1930s wealthy English socialite Caroline Crome who is in her early 20s is being scrutinised by her future lover, the middle-aged Nigel Benson, who resides with his unmarried sister Molly in a handsome rural pile called, significantly, Ambush. Note in the 3-sentence extract above that there is an enormous, quite uncanny amount being told and hinted about the young woman, and in the sharpest and most economical manner, in terms of ironic qualifications and nuanced comic wonderment. Caroline, daughter of the aptly named Lord and Lady Random of the eponymous mansion, has been married off to young Sir Anthony Crome, who lives with his mother in another mansion called Critchley, but she soon finds Anthony dull, and slowly though by no means easily, she falls for his one and only good friend, Nigel. But and before I elaborate on the story, I’d ask you to look again at the passage above, and reflect that in its density and lateral richness and deliberate comic bluntness, it is rather like a virtuoso jazz musician, inasmuch as lots of things are happening at once and yet the author/musician is in total and lucid control of her material. I emphasise this, because such technically adroit and complex writers of any gender are extremely thin on the ground (the remarkably subtle stories of US Deep South writer Eudora Welty, 1909-2001, as in the 1941 A Curtain of Green, are a worthy parallel) and one major literary injustice among many affecting Trefusis (1894-1972) is that her critical reception has always been guarded and mixed. It didn’t help that, as she spent much of her life in France. she wrote equally well in 2 languages, and several of her 7 novels are in French. For complex copyright reasons, the wonderful feminist Virago Press who put some of her books back in print in the 80s, were unable to do so with her unpublished novels that only survive in manuscript. If you’ve heard of Trefusis at all (I myself hadn’t till I was in my mid 50s) it is probably in the context of upmarket literary scandal, for between 1918 and 1921 she was lover of the novelist  and later owner of Sissinghurst and its legendary gardens, Vita Sackville-West(1892-1962) who in turn was lover of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf’s famous 1928 novel Orlando has a central character who keeps changing gender throughout various periods of history, and is based on Vita, and likewise the novel also fictionalises Trefusis as Sasha, a wild even savage princess who is part of a Russian embassy entourage.

What follows next is going to sound like a spectacularly racy, albeit elevated version of the Archers or Eastenders, but here goes. Violet’s mother was the Hon Alice Keppel, wife of the Hon George Keppel, and Alice was favourite mistress of the British monarch Edward 7th (Honourable George apparently made himself obligingly scarce when the royal made his weekly visits). Violet was sent to an exclusive London girls’ school where she met Vita Sackville-West and their friendship continued until they became lovers when both in their mid-twenties. Despite her own impressively top draw adultery, Alice could not accept the scandal of an openly Lesbian daughter, so had her married off to Major Denys Trefusis in 1919. Violet having sworn eternal love to Vita, made Denys promise their marriage would never be consummated, and ditto Vita when she was married off to Harold Nicholson requested the same of him. Harold was in any case bisexual, meaning marriage in his case was a handy social camouflage. Nevertheless, Violet and Vita kept fleeing their marriages to be with each other, often to France, and once were pursued by anguished Denys in an aeroplane. That’s enough of the pulse racing stuff to be going on with, but and before I forget, just to emphasise that Violet Trefusis still does not get her just critical acclaim, not even in 2019, and is much less read than Sackville-West who in my view is a far inferior, even clumpingly awkward writer. Vita’s 1931 All Passion Spent, for example, is a limp, jejune and underwritten affair with a title to match, and Woolf several times wrote that her lover was often ‘too fluent’ aka was often a bad writer. Yet astonishingly, in her day Sackville-West was regarded by critics as a greater talent than Woolf, and she certainly sold more books, ironically some of them with the famous Hogarth Press which Virginia and her husband Leonard owned and ran.

But back to Hunt the Slipper.  Here is Nigel’s sister Molly, a gardening fanatic who devotes herself to looking after both herbaceous borders and feckless Nigel, as she muses tenderly about her insomniac brother:

‘He gets so little, meaning sleep. She was glad to contribute to that little. An excellent sleeper herself, she was rather proud of his insomnia. It set him aside as a superior being. Like Nietzsche, he only obtained by violence what was given others freely’

One obvious thing here is that Trefusis has a very subtle and caustic wit, and the publishing industry both in her day and now, seems to be suspicious of women authors who are both very funny and very clever, and much prefer the acceptably facetious. The only female British author I can think of who managed to succeed as a razor sharp and clever comic stylist, was Muriel Spark (1918-2006) possibly in part because some of her books e.g The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) were eminently filmable, whereas Trefusis’s miniature masterpieces are less adaptable in cinematic terms.

Meanwhile, in the context of their illicit love affair, it is Caroline, not Nigel, who has always been the rebel and the iconoclast. She and Anthony have a little daughter called Margaret who Anthony adores, but Caroline finds her plain and dull, to the point that she even slaps her at times out of pure irritation. Not only does she struggle to bond with her child, she is neither a gardener like Molly and her mother in law, nor is she a cherisher of objects like her husband and her lover. Nigel and Anthony both love their ancestral homes to distraction, and they also collect antiques, furniture and ‘bibelots’. Recall that Violet’s lover Vita, owner of Sissinghurst, was an avid horticulturalist, and for years wrote a gardening column for The Observer, and then read Caroline’s observation on such worthy pastimes.

‘That was it…a turn in the garden was good English dogma…whereas a new kind of bath salts was Discovery. Surely there was something maudlin about the way these old women gushed over each embryonic plant: could it be that gardening was their last sexual outlet?’

Nonetheless, the real strength of this novel is the subtly woven thread of the two lovers’ stop-start infatuation, which also explains the title of the novel, the party game slipper which always seems within reach but stays tantalisingly elusive. They first meet inconclusively at Critchley, as naïve Sir Anthony thinks meeting a sound chap like his friend Nigel might distract his wife from her occasional doldrums. Later by coincidence Nigel happens to be in Paris at the same time as the Cromes, and there Caroline is carrying on flagrantly with a handsome Chilean called Melo. Typically, Anthony is incapable of being jealous, as Melo is not only not a gentleman, he is a ‘dago’ foreigner, hence there can be no conceivable danger in their dancing together all night. Trefusis’ shrewd evocation of Melo and his obvious limits is masterly in its economy.

‘He had no friends. Le chic was his undoing. He was really a perfectly harmless childishly vain young man with a taste for playing the maracas…and a talent for dancing which almost amounted to genius. Completely self-possessed, fashion rather than passion dictated his affairs, and he was capable of giving excellent and disinterested advice to young women on the art of running their faces.’

Melo is also very fickle and lies to Caroline when he cancels an evening assignation, the excuse being his mother has turned up in Paris out of the blue. In fact, he has a rendezvous with one of the most elegant women in Europe, namely Terpischore von Putsch, also known as Terps, the widow of a Senator. Terps has ‘bones that were joss sticks, her eyes were by Faberge, her heart made out of Venetian glass, was a pretty toy’. By chance, Caroline spots the two of them together in a taxi, and returns to her hotel in great distress, virtually paralysed by the betrayal. As it happens, Anthony has just been called back to England, because his mother Lady Crome has suddenly been taken ill. And fortuitously, it is Nigel who escorts her back to the hotel, for he has seen her in the street in a state of obvious shock and has ministered alcohol and guided her to her bed. Intimacy predictably follows, and very soon the middle-aged bachelor finds himself completely infatuated with his best friend’s young wife. Caroline before long has to return to England, but Nigel stays on with Molly on a European jaunt, taking in Monte Carlo, Florence and Rome, a blurred itinerary if ever there was, as now the whole of his life hinges on her letters and their unpredictable arrival. Her correspondence is both perfunctory and scarce, and he is driven to madness by this passive and paralysing obsession, and even becomes suicidal in Rome.

‘How could he get even with her, the bitch? How dared she make him suffer so, encouraging him in one letter, annihilating him in the next? He loathed her, despised her, longed for a whole harem of women on whom to wreak his vengeance. A second whisky and soda…made him leer at quite a respectable American girl who was sitting opposite him in the lounge. She got up and walked away.’

By a miracle Nigel’s torment does eventually cool, and as the great Stendhal (1783-1842) has analysed at length, in his treatise on the torment of unfulfilled passion entitled On Love (1822), his lesser ardour suddenly prompts Caroline to realise how much she misses him and to increase hers. They become lovers at Critchley when Anthony is away, and of course, at Ambush, with Molly ignoring everything apart from her flowering shrubs, they can behave as they like. Everything would seem to be secure for ever more, especially as Anthony is the blindest of naïve cuckolds, who sees his wife’s new happiness (she has stopped slapping little Margaret for example) as down to Nigel’s regular fraternal visits, it being inconceivable that his friend would betray him. Two things get seriously in the way however, one being that Caroline wants to show off her lover in London, somewhere else where they can behave as they like. This entails Nigel not only deserting his beloved Ambush, but also going dancing and partying, which not only bores him stiff, but gives rise to anguished jealousy when she is dancing with someone else. Caroline eventually relents on all that, but will not concede on something far more important. Guilt at his treachery to Anthony aside, Nigel would be happy to stay her lover for evermore, as long as he can stay at Ambush and have his bibelots as well as his mistress. But Caroline, for all her volatile moods, is now genuinely in love, and wants to leave Antony and to marry Nigel. Nigel meanwhile is appalled, not just as the prospect of his life being turned upside down, but at her callousness towards her doting husband and neglected daughter.

While this unresolved contention is bubbling away, Caroline makes a visit to her extraordinary family, and this is one of the comic high points of the novel. To describe the Randoms as eccentric is excessive understatement. Her mother is very keen on ornithology, especially the icterine warbler, and she has no interest in running the house, so that Lord Random the ex-diplomat survives mostly on breakfast cereals. Dinner is always at least an hour late, and is frequently organised by one of Caroline’s three brothers, all of whom live at Random, all of whom are collectors of objects, and only one of whom Terence, is married, to, of all things, a penniless emigre Russian.

‘Terence collected keys. The only key that didn’t interest him was the key to his wife’s heart. Once she had grown accustomed to his angelic beauty, she discovered his angelic coldness.’

As for the dinner Caroline is offered on the first night of her visit:

‘Lord Random thought it was time to intervene. “Leave your mother alone boys, and attend to your- er – chicken.”

“It isn’t chicken, it’s peahen,” came the indignant reply.

Caroline pushed away her plate. “Faugh! I might have guessed it was something disgusting. Really, it’s like dining with the Borgias! The next time I come here I’ll provide my own food.”

…Lord Random offered Caroline a covered dish. “Here child, you’d better have some of my puffed wheat. It’s quite safe.”’

This is high class farce, worthy of Evelyn Waugh, indeed funnier than Waugh in my opinion. However, what follows next gets less and less farcical, as Caroline pressures Nigel into telling Anthony about their affair and insisting that he must divorce her. After a colossal struggle, Nigel eventually musters enough courage, at which point Anthony is suddenly struck down with typhoid fever and almost dies. The aftermath is that his heart is so weak that any shock could kill him, which thankfully puts paid to any immediate disclosure. Caroline’s next strategy is to get Nigel to go abroad again partying, and in an attempt to stir him into jealousy, starts making much of a naive and rich 55-year-old Canadian called Tom, a man so ignorant he thinks Picasso is the name of a holiday resort. When Nigel has to return to England, Caroline refuses to go with him, but stays on with Tom, so that he believes things must have finished and is in terminal despair. It gets even worse, when Anthony turns up pitifully distraught with a letter from Caroline saying she is in love with Tom, and their marriage must end, and he must look after Margaret. Even at this stage Anthony has no idea that Nigel Benson has betrayed him. While her shattered husband is staying with Nigel, a letter arrives in Caroline’s handwriting which he assumes can only confirm what she had told Anthony. Then, the cruellest of all conceivable tragedies. Fool that he is, he doesn’t open the letter for several days, only to discover that Tom was a hoax and a lure, nothing more, intended solely to spur Nigel into putting his money where his mouth was, and to marry her. Her appalling letter concludes:

‘…if you’re not here by Friday I shall run away with Tom and it’s no use trying to find me. When I think of all the trouble I’ve gone to, to induce you to take such a natural step, it makes my blood boil, and I see red. And you say that you love me!  If you’re not here by Friday, I never wish to see you again.

This is final. Don’t be a fool.’

And yes, he has missed Caroline’s deadline…

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