Beneath the Visiting Moon by Romilly Cavan
The setting of a book can sometimes be seen as an extra character in the novel, and undoubtedly the sun dappled, gently decaying eighteenth century ancestral house of Fontayne with its expressive gardens plays its part in Cavan’s final novel. Written and published in 1940, this story of a family in its community has been republished by the wonderful Dean Street Press in the Furrowed Middlebrow series. Not that this book lacks memorable characters; it is mainly centred on seventeen year old Sarah, but also features her immediate family and its friends in a community seemingly filled with unusual people. On the one hand it is a gentle story of Sarah discovering life and love culminating in her eighteenth birthday party, on another it is a family story, with its various members making discoveries about themselves and others. Crucially it is also a story of a community on the brink of world changing events, as the country prepares for war and an entire way of life is disappearing.
Full of the tribulations of teenage life, this novel skillfully records the world through the eyes of Sarah who has little knowledge of the world, Philly as she battles with home made clothes, Christopher, nearly speechless with admiration of an older woman, and Tom, who has an excruciating turn of phrase and the lack of tact that makes him difficult to like. The other main family in this book suffers from all sorts of difficulties, including a daughter whose precociousness threatens to overwhelm everything, especially with her habit of literary quotation which provides the title of this novel. A big book in many senses, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and refer this memorable novel.
The novel opens with Sarah and Philly visiting the village. It marks a shopping trip with inconsistencies, as they have limited funds for many things, but the local shop sells them a bottle of champagne for Mother. They are trying to sell the house in a half hearted way; since the death of their brilliant father the family finances have drifted, and Sarah at least realizes that maintaining an establishment like Fontayne requires more cash than they have access to, certainly if Christopher is to go to Oxford. Elisabeth, widowed mother, is an obsessive flower expert, and anything else is not of interest to her for any length of time. Bracken is a family friend who has always visited, an American with a quiet demeanor, not the glamorous sort that Sarah feels she would have preferred. As time goes on Sarah targets a lonely musician and his children who she feels may want to buy the house, but Julian has apparently other attractions for her mother, and soon she has to spend more time than she perhaps would like in the company of the child prodigy Bronwen with all her literary pretensions. Sarah becomes infatuated with the mysterious Sir Giles, diplomat and a man that represents all the glamour that Sarah could want from life. Treasuring his every word and gesture, she has hopes that she will be lifted from her boring life, and enter true adulthood with his guidance.
This is a book full of pictures convey seemingly effortlessly by this skilled writer. The fading house, a grim London flat, dances and parties full of the realities of shyness and small jealousies. The characters are so well described as to waken real reactions to them; the self satisfied Mrs Oxford, the imaginative Emily, the challenging younger people who unwittingly ruin so many of Sarah’s illusions. It perhaps represents the end of an era, an age of comparative innocence, before the stark realities of a war which would change so much forever. I recommend this book for its capturing of a young woman’s life, a family’s progress, and a looking back on a time without the benefit of hindsight of what may survive.