The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

Rebecca West is the final author to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors this year. Having previously only read The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, I decided to read The Fountain Overflows next as it is one of the books on my Classics Club list. This is the first in a trilogy (the other two – This Real Night and the unfinished Cousin Rosamund – were published posthumously), and although it is a work of fiction, it does apparently draw on the author’s own childhood experiences.

The Fountain Overflows is set in the early 20th century and tells the story of the Aubrey family through the eyes of Rose, one of the children. As the novel opens, the family are preparing for a move from Scotland to London, having only recently returned to Britain from South Africa. The children have become used to changing address on a regular basis due to the fact that their father, a newspaper editor, seems unable to stay in one position for very long. He is irresponsible, unreliable and has a habit of gambling his money away on the stock exchange, but his wife and children love him anyway and hope that this time he can make a success of the job he has been offered and that they will be able to stay in their new home for longer than usual.

The Aubreys are a creative, cultured and highly gifted family – Rose and her twin sister, Mary, are talented pianists; their little brother Richard Quin, as he grows older, discovers an aptitude for the flute; and Cordelia, the eldest, plays the violin. Their mother, Clare Aubrey, had been a concert pianist herself, and it falls to her to see that each of her children receives the correct guidance and tuition to make the most of their abilities. This proves particularly challenging where her eldest daughter is concerned, as thanks to a well-meaning but interfering teacher, Cordelia is led to believe she is much more talented than she really is. I found the Cordelia storyline very moving – it’s obvious from the beginning what is going to happen but it takes a long time to play out and I dreaded the moment when she would inevitably discover the truth.

Although this is a story driven by characters, relationships and family bonds, there is also some drama. There is an episode where Rose and her mother visit the home of Rose’s Aunt Constance and cousin Rosamund, only to find the house apparently haunted by poltergeists. Later in the book, the mother of a friend from school is accused of murder and the Aubreys are drawn into that too. But these incidents, each of which could have formed the entire plot of a different sort of novel, are relatively minor aspects of The Fountain Overflows and no more or less important than many of the other things that happen in Rose’s life.

I loved Rose’s narrative voice; not all authors can write convincingly from the perspective of a child, but Rebecca West certainly does. She really captures the way children think and feel, the things that matter to them and the way they look at the world. But the most engaging character, for me, was Rose’s mother. I admired her for her strength in trying to keep her family and marriage together, seeing that the rent is paid on time, helping others despite her own financial hardship, and providing a stable, loving home for her children when their father couldn’t or wouldn’t.

With such strong, believable characters and such lovely writing, this was a wonderful read. I was sorry to have to leave the family behind at the end, but I’m looking forward to meeting them again in This Real Night.

This is book 10/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Virago Reading Week: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was written during World War I and published in 1918. The soldier of the title is Christopher Baldry, who has just been sent home from a hospital in Boulogne. Chris is suffering from severe amnesia and is unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life. He can’t wait to be reunited with his girlfriend Margaret Allington, the daughter of an innkeeper on Monkey Island. Unfortunately, though, Margaret is no longer his girlfriend – she’s married to another man and is now Mrs Grey. And to make matters even more complicated, Chris has a wife of his own.

The story is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, who has been staying at his home, Baldry Court, with his wife, Kitty. Jenny is unmarried but appears to be in love with Chris herself and is devoted to making him happy. When it becomes obvious that Chris really can’t remember Kitty and is still in love with Margaret, the three women are faced with a decision. Is it better for him to be ‘cured’ and regain his memory, even if it means bringing back the horrors of war – or should he be left as he is, blissfully unaware of what has happened during the last fifteen years?

Despite being a quick read at less than 200 pages, The Return of the Soldier raises some interesting issues and leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Although the title character is a First World War soldier, this is not really a book about the war itself and we learn almost nothing about what Chris experienced (in fact, I felt that we didn’t really get to know Chris very well at all). Instead, West takes the war as a starting point to explore some of the consequences that arose from it, such as memory loss as a symptom of the shell shock which many soldiers suffered due to their horrific experiences in the trenches.

But to me, the major theme of this novel was West’s portrayal of class differences, with the rich, spoilt Kitty on one side and the poor, plain Margaret on the other. Kitty treats Margaret with disdain and contempt and Jenny initially shares the same views. I actually found the first couple of chapters quite difficult to read because of their nasty attitudes. For example, this is what Jenny thinks of Margaret on their first meeting:

She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

Eventually Jenny’s attitude starts to change and she begins to see why Chris loves Margaret so much. However, Kitty’s character is never really developed at all. I was expecting Kitty and her relationship with Chris to play a bigger part in the story, but this didn’t happen. Instead, as Margaret comes into the forefront of the story and we start to see her inner beauty and warmth, Kitty’s role becomes less significant.

This book can easily be read in one sitting, which is exactly what I did as I didn’t want to put it down. Rebecca West’s writing is beautiful and for such a short book it was very moving and poignant. Just a word of warning, though – don’t read the back cover first as it gives the ending away!

I read this book as part of the Virago Reading Week hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel of Book Snob.