I hadn’t meant to take Monogram out of the library. At least I hadn’t meant to take it out just yet.
I’d read one book by G B Stern – The Ten Days of Christmas – and I meant to read the three others in my collection before I tackled an autobiography. Her novels seem so diverse, and so I thought that it would be right to meet the author through her books, and then to bring things together with an autobiography.
I only pulled out Monogram for a look, for inspiration. But when I opened the front cover I saw that the book hadn’t left the library since the 1950s.
I bought the book home – I just had too after I saw that.
I found that what I had was not a coventional autobiography. That, given a free hand by her publishers, the author had decided to do something a little different.
She explains, with both erudition and charm, that, while a conventional biography that plots a straight line through a line can be a wonderful thing, it is sometimes more interesting to do something else. To set down three stakes, to run a rope around then to make a triangle, and then to see what is to be found inside that triangle.
And that’s just what she does.
So this is a book that told me little about the facts of the author’s life, but it does tell me a great deal about the woman she was and the things she loved.
I was a little confused at first. Miss Stern jumps from subject to subject – an incident on a European holiday makes her think of Nell Gwynn, a fellow traveller brings to mind Jo March’s Professor Bhaer – and for a while I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole and unable to see exactly what was on the shelves.
But I soon found my feet.
I began to feel that I was at a wonderful literary party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I couldn’t quite reach her through the crowd, but I was still enthralled.
And so I must tell you a little of what I heard.
This is a very telling passage, that I so understood:
“Sentimentality and that childish tendency to say, “nobody loves me and I don’t care” on the slightest provocation, made one invariably cast oneself for the lame child excluded from the good time that others were having. My yearning always to belong to a fabulous band known as “The Rectory Children” was associated with the idea that the rectory children were always having just this sort of good time, and that if you mingled with them hard, you would be yourself identified with their good time, and so escape the dire fate of being excluded from whatever was going on. These mythical rectory children, later on, were to develop into a more sophisticated group; but they would always be the group that looked to me as though they were having the best time of all …”
That did recurred, as did the idea of what she called ‘Peter Pannery.’ With such wonderful wit:
“The Englishman has a curious innate reluctance to become adult. “He’s such a boy at heart, “ is a term of praise in this country. Perhaps also in other countries? I am not quite sure: “Ce n’est qu’un grand garçon” may be said indulgently in France as often as in England. Except that garçon also means bachelor, or waiter. Either puts the sense wrong …”
Miss Stern was a wonderful observer of other women:
“The first modern girl, the first record that the difficult modern daughter was not at all a modern invention was, of course, Persephone; and Persephone could have given an interviewer a pretty good idea of her views on the old-fashioned mother; Demeter was a darling, of course; a mummy-my-sweet; but terribly unreasonable; “Mummy doesn’t realise that one’s allowance goes simply nowhere nowadays; and she fusses over me and talks poppy-cock about sitting at home after dark and it’s dangerous to talk to strangers, till I sometimes think I’ll go batty” …”
That has me so intrigued with her novel ‘Debonair’, and its heroine, named Persephone …
She was thrilled with so much that women had achieved in the early years of the twentieth century and hopeful – maybe too hopeful – that the future would offer wonderful possibilities.
“Now, when I meet scholastic ladies I like them, respect them, yet feel as though I were skating precariously on thin ice all the time; or rather, that my brittle ice is their solid terra firma. Will they find me out, I wonder? Find out those frightful gaps in my education?”
Notice that little hint of insecurity again …
I haven’t mentioned books yet. It’s difficult to pull out quotes because when she writes about books the words just flow and flow and flow.
I knew that she loved Jane Austen and that she had written about Jane Austen, and her knowledge and her passion were wonderful. She wrote, intruingly, about the parallels between the Austen family and Jane’s fictional families. And here’s something I hadn’t noticed before: Jane happily shares her own name with more than one of her characters but she does not share Cassandra, the name of her mother and her sister …
I discovered that she loved Dickens too, and had done ever since she read ‘A tale of Two Cities’ and met Sidney Carlton at the age of ten.
And then there was the theatre. She loved the theatre.
“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”
She understood the power of music, and of lyrics:
“’A Telephone Call’ by Dorothy Parker, though not in song form, is probably the most agonised, most agonising torch-song ever written. I would give you the Hundred Most Massive Highbrow Living Writers, the kind who creak and heave as they thrust their shoulders at the wheel, like figures in a frieze of Modern Labour, for what Dorothy Parker can do by not using quite half the strength in her little-finger …”
There are one or two more things that made me love her that I really much share. She loved, and understood, dogs.
“I am fond of dogs; deeply and unreasonably fond of them; though I have never subscribed to the platitude that the dog is “the intelligent friend of man.” For consider a spaniel, for instance; how with ears flapping, forepaws scuttering in all directions, he will chase a rabbit year after year, sometimes the same and sometimes a different rabbit but with no hope of ever catching up with it; how he will lie down heavily on a bed of your recently planted bulbs just beginning to show tender and fragile above the earth, and when you furiously holloa at him to come off, will wag his tail, will gaze up at you with love and devotion unalterable in his sherry-coloured eyes, and then roll over heavily on to his back the better to destroy the little green shoots …”
And she lived in Cornwall for a time – and learned about the Cornish.
“A eucalyptus tree once grew in our garden in Cornwall. We had signed a lease in the autumn. For seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years, of that little house and garden; and returned to take possession in the spring.
During the winter, in London, we talked of that solitary eucalyptus tree; a rare prize to find in an English garden. And while we talked it grew taller, more strange and silvery and beautiful. Not many people in England, we told ourselves, have eucalyptus trees in their front garden.
When we returned we found it lying prone across the lawn. Our Cornish landlord had cut it down to make “a gentleman’s avenue.” “Ee must have a gentleman’s avenue,” he said repeatedly. I wonder why he thought so.”
Just one more, that I love for knowing the importance of the small things, and of the big things.
“My new watch kept beautiful time. A watch, a clock, they are the only things that can keep time. The rest of us squander it, lose it, clutch at it, are burdened with it, let it escape, cannot catch up with it, chase it, plead with it, sigh for it, die for it …”
When I turned the final page I knew that I had found a wonderful new literary friend.
And that I really must read her other novels …