Apart from the LibraryThing centenary reads for Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, I think this is the first group read I’ve taken part in – organised by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book as the film is due out soon. Luckily, I already had a nice little Penguin copy of this book sitting on my shelf and it counts as a re-read too, as I know I read it a *long* time ago – though I confess to remembering little about it!
Julia Strachey was, of course, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and one of the famous Strachey family. This novella was first published in 1932 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, so it has something of a pedigree, especially as it is now available as a Persephone! My Penguin copy bills it on the back as a comedy….. more of which later!
The short novel tells of a day in the life of Dolly Thatcham – her wedding day, in fact, which is taking place on a blustery March day in Dorset. Dolly is marrying Owen, to whom she has only been engaged for a month, as they are off to South America as he has to work there. As the book starts, with Dolly milling around staring at herself in an old mirror, while her mother fusses around her irritatingly, I was already given a sense of unease – for someone about to be married, Dolly seemed in an odd state of mind.
As the story unfolds, the extended Thatcham family plus wedding guests come into focus. There is Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister, who is cursed with big hands and a shrill voice; the uncle/Canon who is to give Dolly away; two cousins Robert and Tom who seem to be in a perpetual state of feud; Joseph, Dolly’s abandoned suitor; plus various aunts and local people, as well as a succession of much put-upon domestics (who are constantly being blamed for Mrs. Thatcham’s mistakes). For a short work this packs in a lot of characters, and they are all very distinct although introduced quite abruptly in most cases. Dolly seems uncertain about the future, unable to relate properly to her mother who is detached and unfocused – to the extent that she puts two different people in one bedroom together and does not realise what she has done. This vagueness suffuses many of the characters, who do not seem to quite know what they want, particularly Joseph who is pining for Dolly and having missed his chance to woo her, seems unable to take any decisive course of action. Dolly is reduced to swigging from a bottle of rum and departs for the church with an ink stain on her dress, hastily covered up for her by Joseph. Everything seems to go wrong – even a lost tortoise, who has been found in time to go off to South America with the newly weds, is let loose by Owen as he does not think there will be anything for it to eat on the voyage. I couldn’t help feeling that this was a marriage that was going to be doomed from the start.
So – is this book a comedy? Well, it didn’t strike me as such – more of a tragedy, actually. The (extended) family are remarkably dysfunctional and Mrs. Thatcham is so annoying that I found myself quite delighted when Joseph had a real go at winding her up at the end of the story, and Kitty told her exactly where she had gone wrong. Nobody is happy, and this seemed more of a bittersweet dissection of why things can go wrong if we are not decisive enough in pursuing our dreams, than any kind of comedy. I’m still not sure whether I really enjoyed this book or not – there were parts of the writing which were very beautiful and Strachey word-painted the scenes very evocatively. But I don’t know really what the point of the story was – it ended up being a portrait of a messed up family, but without the charm of say, “Guard Your Daughters”. The jury is still out on this one!