Dear Sphinx

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson and Sally Beauman
    Virago, 543 pp, £3.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 86068 300 1
  • The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy and Anita Brookner
    Virago, 326 pp, £3.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 86068 354 0
  • The Constant Novelist: A Study of Margaret Kennedy 1896-1967 by Violet Powell
    Heinemann, 219 pp, £10.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 434 59951 4

Ada Leverson (1862-1933) said she had learned about human nature in the nursery. A little brother got her to help him make a carriage out of two chairs, but when he was taken out in a real carriage he was not in the least interested. Certainly she never under-estimated the human capacity for imagination or for disappointment.

The nursery was in lavish 21 Hyde Park Square, and her father was a successful property investor. Her mother, descended from a distinguished Jewish family, was beautiful, talented and leisurely, with moments of intuition, called ‘Mamma’s flashlights’. They did not warn her that Ada was going to escape, as she did at the age of 18, into a luckless marriage. Ernest Leverson, a diamond merchant’s son, was unfaithful, a gambler, and couldn’t manage the money, although it is true that Ada was extravagant, and notably more so after she met Oscar Wilde. She became Wilde’s fast friend, and for a few golden years was surrounded by London’s artists, actors and first-nighters. (Max Beerbohm, of course, was a second-nighter; he advised on the decoration of her new house.) Ada Leverson was not worried by Wilde’s train de vie. To another friend, who said he was on a strict regimen ‘in the hope of keeping my youth’, she replied: ‘I didn’t know you were keeping a youth’ – this, like other unpredictable things, in a low voice, almost thrown away. To use her circle’s favourite word, she was impayable. She had the gift, too, of amiability (Henry James felt that in her at last he had found the Gentle Reader) and of pure high spirits: all the family had them – one of her brothers was the original of Charley’s Aunt. After Wilde’s disgrace and death she may have lost heart a little. But just as she had stood by her ruined friend, so she put a brave face on her marriage until Ernest, on the verge of bankruptcy, was sent away to Canada in the company of his illegitimate daughter, at the diamond merchant’s expense. Then Ada retreated to Bays-water with her children.

Wilde had told her that she had all the equipment of a writer except pen, ink and paper, and in fact she had already contributed, on and off, to Punch and the Yellow Book. Now Grant Richards, who says in his Memories of a Misspent Youth that ‘an introduction to Mrs Ernest Leverson was one of the most important things that could happen to a young man,’ persuaded her to turn novelist. Her grandson, Francis Wyndham, has told us that she hated writing,[*] though it seems almost perverse of her not to enjoy something she did so well. Six novels came out between 1907 and 1917. After that, Grant Richards – although she was in love with him – could only persuade her to write the introduction to a fortune-telling book, Whom you should marry, which amused her. Three of the novels, Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight, make up a trilogy, and these have now been reprinted by Virago.

It was Wilde who first addressed Ada Leverson as the Sphinx. Sally Beauman, I think, worries unduly about this. There were many Sphinxes about in the Nineties. One of them appeared to Richard le Gallienne as he sat in a restaurant eating whitebait, others to Gustave Moreau and to Khnopff. Nor would I agree with Sally Beauman that the tone of the Sphinx’s novels is ‘unmistakably descended from Jane Austen’. It seems to me much more nearly related to her own contemporaries, Paul Bourget and ‘Gyp’. The passing remarks of Bourget’s characters (‘tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des demi-mondes,’ ‘avec les femmes tout est possible, même le bien’) are in the Leversonian mode, so is the worldly entanglement of Mensonges (which Edith, in Tenterhooks, is reading for the first time). But Ada Leverson never indulged in the clinical analysis of the psychology of love, for which Bourget pauses between almost every speech. She has her own lucid shorthand for the emotions. ‘Gyp’, on the other hand, wrote almost entirely in dialogue (to the admiration of Henry James, who wished to imitate her in The Awkward Age), whereas we couldn’t do without the Sphinx’s droll commentary.

I don’t mean that Ada Leverson was an imitator: rather, that she was enchanted by the times she lived in. The three novels which make up The Little Ottleys change subtly with the passing years, not only in reference, but in atmosphere. In Love’s Shadow there are aging poets surviving from the Nineties, nouveau art, amateur theatricals. In Tenterhooks you can choose whether to take a hansom or a taxi-cab, Debussy and Wagner are ‘out’, and at dinner-parties ‘one ran an equal risk of being taken to dinner by Charlie Chaplin or Winston Churchill.’ The Turkey Trot is discussed along with Nijinsky and Post-Impressionism: ‘please don’t take an intelligent interest in the subjects of the day,’ the hero begs. In Love at Second Sight he is in khaki, and wounded. At the same time the viewpoint grows, not less intelligent, but more sympathetic to the absurdity of human beings in a trap of their own making.

Unashamedly her friends are pictured in her novels, and her own unhappiness, and, for that matter, the courage with which she faced it. Perhaps because of this, they show a great advance on her Yellow Book stories, ‘Suggestion’ and ‘The Quest for Sorrow’. Love’s Shadow is a set of variations on the theme of jealousy. Ada herself felt that jealousy was allowable, but envy, never. Hyacinth Verney’s guardian is in love with her, Hyacinth is in pursuit of the fashionable Cyril, Cyril has a hopeless tendresse for Mrs Raymond, who is neither young nor beautiful, but seems merely ‘very unaffected, and rather ill’. For counterpoint, there is Edith Ottley, who is beginning to be tired of her own patience with her husband, but who is not yet the victim of human emotion. Critics, and even the Sphinx’s own family, found the book frivolous, but I don’t know that any book which proclaims so nearly the painful value of honesty can be frivolous. Its real heroine is the uncompromisingly plain Anne Yeo, hideously dressed in a mackintosh and golf-cap, and ‘well aware that there were not many people in London at three o’clock on a sunny afternoon who would care to be found dead with her.’ Sharp-tongued Anne is in love with Hyacinth, the only genuine passion in the novel. When she has done all she can to help Hyacinth to capture Cyril in marriage, she is seen for the last time on her way to Cook’s. She has decided to emigrate.

Whether Ada Leverson originally intended it or not, the Ottleys become central to the next two novels. Grandly careless in small details, she changes Edith’s age and the colour of her hair, and makes her far more witty and admired. Bruce is, if possible, more monstrously selfish and witless. (When Ernest Leverson came back on one of his infrequent visits from Canada, it was said that ‘he talked just like Bruce.’) Possibly the Sphinx is too hard, at times, on her creation. Faultless is Edith’s clarity, ruthless are the sharp-eyed inhabitants of the nursery. But, after all, Bruce is well able to protect himself. ‘With the curious blindness common to all married people, and indeed to any people who live together’, Edith has not noticed that Bruce is making sly advances to the governess. Meanwhile, she herself has fallen in love with the impulsive Aylmer Ross, but ‘how can life be like a play?’ she asks sadly, and to Bruce’s relief (for he can now feel injured) she simply gets rid of the governess. In contrast to her self-restraint, there is the interlocking story of her devoted friend, Vincy. A dandyish observer of life, Vincy has a mistress, Mavis, an impoverished young art student whose red hair is ‘generally untidy at the back’. Her poverty, which brings her close to starvation, is disquieting, but Vincy discards her without pity: ‘ “Shall you marry her?” – “I’m afraid not,” he said. “I don’t think I quite can.” ’ For all their humour and good humour, these novels can sometimes seem unrelenting. At length, the easily-persuaded Bruce runs off with Mavis. Edith, however, for the sake of her children, rescues him once again.

But Ada Leverson is writing in terms of comedy, and Edith Ottley must be left happier than she was herself. To bring this about, she introduces, in Love at Second Sight, a grotesque creation, powerful enough to dominate the situation. Eglantine Frabelle, perfectly well-off and perfectly self-satisfied, is a guest in the Ottleys’ small London house and shows no signs of ever going away. She is, wrote Siegfried Sassoon, like ‘a really great impressionist picture by Whistler or Manet’, who, ‘to tell you the truth, rather dumps the others, dear Sphinx’. Sassoon was right. Edith and Aylmer are less interesting than this stately, tedious widow of a French wine-merchant, whose name has undertones of frappant and poubelle. Always knowledgeable, and invariably wrong, she is detestable, and admired by everybody: even Edith is devoted to her. When Bruce (it is 1916) finds that listening to the war news is affecting his health, and he must leave for America, he elopes – and we know he will never escape again – with Madame Frabelle. Once she has left the book, even though Aylmer and the delightful Edith are free to marry, the interest fades. We seem to be waiting for her to come back.

How can Bruce manage to think that he must ‘throw in his lot’ with her? Through wilful misunderstanding. Their day out on the river is tedious. The only boat left for hire is The Belle of the River, as battered as an old tea-chest, and they find that they have very little to say to one another. But both of them have the impression that it has been a great success. With such non-events, or anti-events, Ada Leverson is marvellously skilful. Oscar Wilde had wanted The Importance of Being Earnest to be not paradoxical, but nonsensical – pure nonsense, he said. The first act ends not with an epigram, but a wail: ‘But I haven’t quite finished my tea!’ This is the art of inconsequence, possible only in a society where consequences can still be grave. The Sphinx, also, had a most distinctive ear for nonsense. ‘With a tall, thin figure and no expression,’ she writes, ‘Anne might have been any age, but she was not.’

If there are such things as very good bad books, one must be Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph. Taking down my mother’s copy (the seventh impression in the first few months of publication), I can feel the good bad enticement at once. Here I am in the high Alpine meadows, with a wild musical family (unashamedly based on Augustus John’s) and I know that the 15-year-old Tessa, graceless, witty and shabby, is the Undine or Constant Waif and that she will end up in a shady rooming-house, and die for love.

Margaret Kennedy, who wrote 16 novels, but scored her only great success with this one, gave an interview in 1956 in which she said that as a child she had put off learning to write for as long as possible because she much preferred telling her stories aloud. She added that the trouble with most modern books was that they were too well-written, and that she herself had not produced any novels between 1938 and 1950. ‘I did not want to write fiction and I was not obliged to do so. I had twelve years in which to stroll about and look at things.’ This suggests a certain cutting edge to Margaret Kennedy, which is not quite apparent in Violet Powell’s biography. But it is a very sympathetic book and surely a definitive one, drawing in detail on the family archives. From Chapter 16, for example, I learned that Margaret Kennedy stopped writing, not because she didn’t feel like it, but because she was attacked by Bell’s palsy.

[*] LRB, Vol.4, No 14.