Saturday, May 10, 2003

It was Peculiar who first introduced me to Rebecca West, with the lovely little novel The Return of the Soldier. My next venture was The Thinking Reed, which found its way onto my list of favorites, and just recently I discovered The Fountain Overflows. For some reason it was at the bottom of my library stack, perhaps because I thought it would be a more serious book like her others that I've read. To my delight it was quite different, being an enthralling story about a highly unusual family in the early twentieth century.

The narrator is the third daughter, Rose, whose voice is refreshing and reflective as only a child's can be; she is a promising musician, following in the footsteps of her mother and her older sister Mary. Unfortunately the oldest child, stunningly beautiful Cordelia, is not such a musician, though she and many others firmly believe her to be, and she torments the family with her mawkish and sentimental violin playing. The youngest, Richard Quin, could be a virtuoso if he applied himself, but he prefers eclectism and the affection showered on him by the entire family and particularly his ne'er-do-well Papa. The family is poor and strange, and thus shunned rather by the general populace, but still they enjoy themselves much more than anyone they know, and have much more interesting adventures than proper gentlefolk.

The oddest thing about this book was something I've noticed before but never thought about directly, and I am very glad it is becoming less and less the fashion. For a very long time the purpose of a family was simply to keep Papa happy--to act, while not quite like slaves, a bit like a harem. Because he was the breadwinner (and, like Mr. Aubrey did in this book, could conceivably leave were he displeased), everything had to be arranged and orchestrated to make a home pleasant just for him. Of course everyone else wanted to be happy too, but little sacrifices were always made--a good book laid aside because Papa wants a game of chess, or pork instead of lamb because that's what Papa likes, or conversations on politics rather than music or gardening. It's bizarre, and not a little annoying.

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