Monday, February 23, 2009

Sensitive Modernism

Frost in May by Antonia White, Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien, Saraband by Eliot Bliss (a nom-de-plume; although oddly it's the "Eliot" that's adopted, not the Bliss) ... Forgotten Modernist classics (all republished by Virago) connected by teenage girls' hearts aflame with Catholic school and lesbian desire. But these are no L-Word meets the Chalet School. Along with novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Rose Macaulay (especially the wonderful The World My Wilderness), these novels approach adolescent girls' desire in a totally unique way.

While James Joyce's heady Portrait of Stephen Dedalus' becoming is widely-read and highly regarded, these novels fell out of favour despite being popular (incredibly so, in the cases of Frost and Bowen) when originally published. It's the old double standard, of course, where an account of masculinity is supposedly of universal interest, whereas an account of femininity has limited itself to a niche.

But these books offer an incredible portrait of what could be called sensitivity or sensibility, something finer, harder, clearer, rangier, fierier, more elemental than the word "sentimental" with which Suzanne Clark tags them. "Sentimental" suggests heaving bosoms and fluttering hankies, a show of attentuated emotion (it's hard to really cry when you're wearing a corset) that conforms to the "angel in the house." The young women in these novels are defiantly unsentimental; they look balefully on their mothers, resist all attempts at femininity like dresses or good behaviour, and have little time for young men. They are artists, musicians, writers, all caught in a moment of potential.

White, O'Brien and Bliss all use the sensations of listening to classical music (a space where the sacred and profane edge into each other) to describe and analogise the flood of feeling each of their protagonists experiences as she comes to consciousness of herself -- in each case, through a nascent desire for a schoolfriend, slightly older, somewhat exotic (tempestuous Spanish girls in both Frost in May and O'Brien's Of Music and Splendour). Homoerotic desire, the rapture of music, and the sense of oneself as an artist are all bound up for these young women.

They are -- and are mocked by adults for being -- exquisitely sensitive. But that's what makes these books so wonderful, as descriptions of their own writers' deep and broad sensitivities to the world, both internal and external. The books are all-involving reading experiences, but also stilling. Unlike most contemporary fiction, they are not driven by incident, but rather feeling as an internal narrative pacing. Their language is sensuous but never indulgent, attuned to adolescent excess of sensation in each fresh encounter with the world. And their expressions of desire are deeply felt without being blunt. Through their layered evocations of the rarefied world of Catholic schooling, they catch the dense and infolded nature of first love, a secret that each protagonist can barely admit to herself -- even as she feels it suffusing her whole being.

Awkward and graceful, knowing and naive, investigative and inward, these are the first teenagers in the literary canon and - inarticulate and fiercely expressive -- they have so much to say to us about how desire enmeshes us not just with one person, but through that person with the sensate world.


Gael said...

You might enjoy Maureen Duffy's Love Child, too
(Is it a *bad* thing to confess to having loved the Chalet School books?)

Delirium's Librarian said...

I do like Maureen Duffy, although the last book of hers that I read (Alchemy) seemed perfunctory and quite silly, not really up there with the London novels. I also loved the Chalet School books and am thinking, with some trepidation, about re-reading them along with some other school novels... It's interesting to think about how those mass-market school novels of the 1930s might be entangled with the High Modernist women's canon...