What to make of Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows? A portrait of the Aubrey family in the early years of the twentieth century; a semi-autobiographical, episodic account of life in an impoverished, eccentric household with a brilliant but quite unreliable father, a highly-strung, worn out mother whose own considerable gifts are now directed at bringing out her daughters' talents; a picture of the complicated intersection of innate talent, ambition, self-awareness and hard work; a melodrama, and a commentary on the times. That's a lot for a book to contain, both in terms of volume and of the demands of the material, and Rebecca West is generous and expansive in her handling of it, but it worked for me in its comfortably discursive, soothingly repetitive way, its mix of the everyday and the bizarre (take the almost music hall character of Aunt Lily - and note the reference to the Kent case, subject of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher which came up the other day - and the poltergeist episode, for example) contributing to its particular charm.
I say 'particular charm' because I find it hard to put my finger on what exactly it is that makes this book work. It, or perhaps I mean Rose, the narrator, is earnest, serious, deep-thinking and large-hearted but at times priggish. The story is a flattish spiral in shape, people and events evolving (mostly) slowly as it goes on, but then the characters are not 'flat' at all but rather intriguing, if contradictory at times. I found it romantic and unique in its view of things and way of expressing that view, clear-sighted and quaint, engaging and frustrating, and I enjoyed it very much indeed.
What did you make of it? Were you urging the senior Aubreys to get a grip? Is its charm down to its 'child's eye view', Rose's attempts to understand a seemingly baffling adult world but with a wisdom beyond her years? Did you find the stress on preparing for a musical career a perfectly reasonable response to the girls' background, upbringing and precarious financial situation, or an almost Tiger Mother-like devotion to duty? As a piece of social history it's fascinating - but was that aspect more compelling than the plot? Have you already gone on to read the other parts of the trilogy, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund? Do tell us what you think.
Later: 'Books and cakes' for The Fountain Overflows is here.