No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2010/54: Still She Wished For Company -- Margaret Irwin

"But London," said Lucian, "is a sad, irreligious place, where there is no longer any true respect for the Infernal Majesty. And that is an important power to conciliate in invoking shades of the dead, since the only shades one would ever desire in company must necessarily come from below. You should visit Paris, cousin -- with your understanding of history you would find it entertaining, as many a French Court lady has done, to dine with the shade of Lucretius or Petronius at Count Cagliostro's house in the Rue St. Claude." (p. 68)
First published in 1924 and apparently out of print for decades, this short novel feels astonishingly modern. Jan Challard is a young woman who's working to support her family. Her fiance Donald is disconcerted by her habit of mental absence: he is 'not the chief thing in her life, not even for the present moment'. Jan reveals that since her school days she's been fascinated and infatuated by the portrait of an unknown eighteenth-century gentleman -- and that she longs to meet her ideal, 'a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own' (p. 19). But such a man cannot exist in 'an age that hurries and scrambles and pushes'. Absurdly romantic, diagnoses her sister, the night before Jan leaves for a long holiday in the country village of Chidleigh.

That's merely the prologue, the framing narrative. The meat of the novel is in 'Time Past': 1779, when a young lady named Juliana Clare frets genteely at the dullness of her quiet country life, and struggles to find improving thoughts to write in her journal. Dullness is banished when her rakehell brother Lucian, absent nine years and notorious for all manner of bad behaviour, returns to Chidleigh House to assume the dukedom. Lucian is also in love with someone he's seen in a dream: he calls her Incognita, and finds in Juliana a way of reaching out to her, bringing her closer, making her more real. Juliana is happy to participate in her brother's experiments -- he has a gift for mesmerism, but cannot be mesmerised himself -- and writes in her journal about the 'ghost' she's seen, and the visions of some future time that become more frequent and more distressing. And there is one night in the library, after the arrival of the French Duc who Lucian wishes her to marry, when ... something happened. But Juliana cannot remember what might have occurred: only that the Duc was found dead.

Lucian is fascinating: more vividly alive than any of the other characters, and though little of his history is stated, his complexity, melancholy and gradual moral evolution is compelling. Lucian changes, over the course of the novel, more than the other characters. Though Jan and Juliana (the one reading the other's journal, but never connecting the 'rather dull diary' with the visions she's having) both experience dramatic change (and Juliana's two oafish brothers come to appreciate that blood is thicker than water), it's Lucian who is the impetus behind those changes.

Still She Wished for Company is not exactly a ghost story: nor is it a tale of the supernatural, though there is certainly a supernatural element. It's incredibly atmospheric: it's measured, restrained, subtle and elegant, beautifully written and a thoughtful exploration of the romantic concept of the dream lover.

1 comment:

  1. I've had the book for years. It's a lovely story. I've called my own Daughter Juliana after Lucian's sister. I still have the book. In Spanish. Just love it.