Monday, May 1, 2017

'The Fountain Overflows' by Rebecca West

In The Fountain Overflows, a 1957 best seller, Rebecca West transmuted her own volatile childhood into enduring art. This is an unvarnished but affectionate picture of an extraordinary family, in which a remarkable stylist and powerful intelligence surveys the elusive boundaries of childhood and adulthood, freedom and dependency, the ordinary and the occult. 

Books like this make me rejoice that I'm doing the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. So far this choice for the Classic by a woman category is among my favourites, and I'm expecting it will be hard to top. It's eccentric, original, quirky and delightful. So British, so Edwardian, and so brutal in pointing out the silliness of adults. And it's all about clearly seeing people's faults, because we can't help it, but loving them in spite of it.

The Fountain Overflows is a modern classic about the Aubrey family, who lived a poverty stricken life in Edwardian London. The story is narrated by one of the daughters, Rose, and I wanted to read it slowly to savour every word, since there was such a lot to ponder and reflect. Don't pay attention to any reviewer who writes, 'Nothing really happens.' That's the shortsighted view. The best response is, 'Wow, there's so much psychology underlying even the smallest aspects of life.' I was jotting down quotes and notes all the time, and for a book with seemingly not much action, I've got plenty to say, so I'll start with an overview of the family members, and finish with some broader aspects of living in the Edwardian era.

The father, Piers.
He's a controversial writer who edits a small, independent newspaper. Friends think he's a genius until he alienates them, but there's always another set of admirers ready to latch onto him. He's capable of burning himself out with zeal for unpopular causes, but his family, much as they love him, have to accept that his energy doesn't extend to them. He's capricious, unreliable, and likely to gamble every spare cent they have.

Rose: There was no stopping Papa when he was engaged in a crusade which would bring him no benefit.
Mama: It's a pity we do not live in a country where clever men are honoured.
Papa: Many people read me and seem to think well of my writing, but almost nobody credits a word I say. I'm like a ghost before my death.

The mother, Clare.
She was once a renowned concert pianist, but marriage to Piers has reduced her to a life of rags and hopeful dreams of better things for her children. At first I thought she was a pathetic figure, always pasting on a fake happy smile, keeping up appearances and denying the obvious. Her daughter Rose called her 'an emaciated, shabby and nerve-jacked woman.' To all appearances, Clare's life was a humiliating flop and she never lived up to expectations. But we get to see that maintaining her stubborn optimism worked its magic on her too.

Before long, she was one of my favourite characters. Clare singlehandedly makes the dingy home a haven for her children, and bursts with love for each in them, in this era when many other parents chose to be distant and autocratic. I think her downward spiral from an up-and-coming celebrity made her something even better, a true unsung hero. One of her favourite indulgences is being able to make a payment before it's due and prevent it becoming a debt. If her life had progressed the way she'd imagined when she was young, she might never have developed half the character she showed.

Mr Pennington: This is hardly the stuff to amuse ladies.
Mamma: Ladies are more accustomed to not being amused than gentlemen seem to realise. Please go on.

Cordelia, the oldest sister.
My heart went out to this girl. She was the only Aubrey child with no exceptional talent for music, but didn't realise it, because her misguided music teacher thought she was brilliant and kept encouraging her to perform at concerts. While she poured her heart and soul into her passion, her family quietly deplored her lack of talent behind her back (over, and over, and over again!) and made fun of her.

The Aubrey family were musical snobs, and I have a hunch Rebecca West probably was too, for writing them as she did. She'd have us believe that if you can't be absolutely top of your game, you might as well give up. Cordelia was proficient enough to please several crowds, since she spent so much time on her craft and received encores. The world is full of amateurs having fun, which doesn't take away from the brilliance of the truly greats, so why not live and let live? I'd hate to stop writing just because I'm not J.K. Rowling or Virginia Woolf. Cordelia's family do however, come to appreciate her beauty and way of carrying herself.

'Cordelia had not given these people music, but she'd given them something that refreshes the eye, like water, trees and flowers.'
'We now knew that if she could not play the violin, she had another attribute that was rare and splendid.'

Mary and Rose
The younger sisters really do have the potential to get far with their piano playing. I understand their point of view too. It would have to be frustrating when you're taking the time needed to maximise your skill, then someone without your talent merrily goes off to perform to the public, believing herself better or at least as good, and receives accolades and pats on the back. They were kids, so course they'd feel annoyed. It set the stage for some interesting family dynamics though.

'We said goodbye forever to praise, which is the prerogative of the amateur.'

The little brother, Richard Quin
He was deliciously gorgeous, both as a toddler at the start and a young teen at the end. He's clearly the family pet, and I love how the girls accept it without question. 'Of course he's the favourite, why wouldn't he be? We all adore him to pieces.' But he's one of those hard to spoil kids who is interested in others, born with natural tact, and finds empathy comes easy. Throughout the story, his natural wit develops in a great way. Everyone he comes across finds his charm impossible to resist, including renowned grouches. And although he has the potential to go as far with his music as Mary and Rose, he just can't be bothered putting in the effort it would take, when he simply wants to be easy-going and enjoy the world. It's a valid attitude, so good for him. He's one of the best young boys I've come across in literature, and brightened up the story just by being in it.

Cousin Rosamund
This young lady deserves a mention too, since she exerts a powerful influence over the Aubrey kids, and they can't pinpoint why. On the surface she's vacant and undemanding, quick to call herself an ordinary person who's nothing special. But every so often, Rosamund makes some pointed observation that proves she might be more perceptive than anyone except Richard Quin, with whom she forms a special bond.

*    *    *

The food of the times makes me curious. There are things like 'lardy cakes' and discussions about how to make them. One character, Aunt Lily, makes a wonderful pork pie which was constructed as much like a work of art as a food, and required exotic ingredients like conger eel. And when children wanted a sweet treat, you piled up bread and butter with brown sugar. Imagine the raised eyebrows in our day.

The story also presents plenty of philosophical truths about childhood. Rose considered herself a representative of kids everywhere. I used to wonder (and still do sometimes) why some people grow up, seem to forget everything that used to irritate them as children, and begin treating young people as inferior citizens. Rose appreciates that her mother understood children and knew they were 'adults handicapped by a humiliating disguise, and had their adult qualities within them.' Rose was admittedly a precocious kid, but her words ring true. She and her sisters, cousin and brother do a lot of make-believe and pretending, but it comes across as something the adults were unwise to give up.

I think maybe her narrative shows that kids have a certain blunt simplicity which adults train themselves out of. Take Rose's views of marriage, for example. 'I thought it was all quite simple. If you were nice looking, men wanted to marry you, and if you were not, you saw it for yourself in the mirror and decided to do something else.' Throughout much of the story, her views about the opposite gender are not flattering. 'A train puffed through the cutting... Two boys hanging out of a carriage window waved at us, but we took no notice, though we would have waved back if they'd been girls.'

You can't review this book without giving a mention to the supernatural. Second sight seems to be a gift which ran in the family, but was downplayed by characters rather than highlighted. There's even a poltergeist. I thought there would be some twist in the story, but no, it was a genuine disruptive, pot and pan flinging poltergeist. Weird, but interesting. Claire's opinion was probably the author's too. She instructs her children never to pry into hidden things, because the supernatural is very murky and dodgy. And since there's a wall separating present and future, you've got to assume it's there for a reason and not attempt to pull it down. Sounds sensible to me.

Toward the end, their mother informs them sadly that they had a dreadful childhood. Well, since they enjoyed it so much on the whole, you've got to question whether her words were true, or whether she did what she thought was the impossible, and gave them a wonderful childhood, in spite of what she thought. I think the title refers to the fact that character attributes of parents make their way into the children, without much conscious effort.

Overall, apart from Claire herself, I was intrigued by Richard Quin and Rosamund, and like their family, the reason eluded me for awhile. I got it in a flash toward the end. While everyone was getting tied in knots trying to work out their future, Mamma said, 'What a delight it is to have Richard Quin and Rosamund, who do not seem to want anything much.' Eureka, that's it! The others were all bogged down with ambitions, judgments, hopes, plans, and an agenda of some sort. These two grew on me because it's so rare, then and now, to come across people who aren't needy, or not aiming for any sort of validation, recognition or feedback so they can feel good about themselves. They're simply content to take each day as it comes, milking the simple little moments for all they're worth.

There were so many fantastic quotes all the way through, but one of the simplest and best comes from Clare. 'You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.' I believe that's what kept her going.

5 stars.


  1. Ooh! This sounds like a book I would enjoy, but I'd never heard of it before!

    1. I'm sure you would. I bought mine at a second hand shop and kept it for a few months before I read it. Then when I found out it was quite a best seller of its time, I could see why.