Friday, December 31, 2010

"B" Writers: Hugh Walpole's The Green Mirror

Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) is rarely read anymore.

One of the most popular middlebrow English novelists of the '20s and '30s, he was not satisfied with commercial success. He was very ambitious, was a protege of Henry James, and published over 50 books.  He felt competitive with W. Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie, with whom he was often compared.

None of the three is read much anymore, and I would certainly recommend Maugham before Walpole.  Sinister Street is a classic, but is the only book by Mackenzie I've read.  Walpole is sometimes very good, but uneven.

There is something about "B" writers, though. Walpole's The Green Mirror:  A Quiet Story (1917) is often awkward, but absolutely brilliant in parts.  It is comparable to E. M. Forster's Howards End, though Walpole is less subtle.  Walpole and Forster both write about the breakdown of tightly woven upper-middle-class families at the turn of the century. Individuality begins to take precedence over groups.   Home gradually comes to mean something beyond a physical place.

The Trenchard clan is smug, convinced that nothing can alter their narrow perspective and routine.  Uncle Tim, who is almost an outsider, says to their friend, Rachel,
"The break-up is beginning....
"Nearly the whole of our class in England has, ever since the beginning of last century, been happily asleep. It isn't good for people to have a woman on thethrone for sixty years--bless her all the same, and her making a success of it.  So we've slept and slept and slepet.  The Old Lady died.  There was the Boer War:  there were motor-cars, flying machines, telephones.  Suddenly England was an island no longer.  She's got to pay attention to other people, other ideas, other customs.  She's got to look out of her window instaed of just snoozing on the sofa, surrounded by her mid-Victorian furniture.  Everything's cracking: new classes are coming up, old classes are going down."
Forster would never have beaten us over the head with an analysis like this.  Still, it sums up the themes of The Green Mirror.

The narrative is told from muliple viewpoints, and the action centers on Philip Mark's proposal to Katherine Trenchard.  Katherine is the prop of the family and especially the guardian of her mother's wishes.  Her mother is the Queen Victoria of the clan.  Katherine's family is shocked that she plans to marry an outsider against her mother's wishes.  Her younger siblings, Millie and Henry, look on her as an old maid, because Katie isn't pretty like Millie and it was believed she would stay home to run the family.  But Millie, who has been to school in France, is more liberal than the rest of the family and is intrigued by Katherine's anticipated break with the family.  Henry, a sloppy adolescent, both likes Philip and is threatened by his masculinity.

Philip has a secret:  he had a mistress in Russia and a child who died.  But he doesn't tell Katherine right away, and other members of the family gradually find out.  

The conflict is among Mrs Trenchard, Katherine, and Philip.  Mrs. Trenchard hopes to break Philip, so that Katherine will live at home even if she does marry.

The novel begins and ends with the consciousness of Henry, the younger brother.  He lives for reading novels, because he has a year off before attending Cambridge.  He is idle, shabby, dreamy and wants to write, but can't finish anything.  (Maybe a young Walpole?)  He spends most of the time in the drawing room with a green mirror that reflects everything beautifully.  The green mirror symbolism is very ineffective.

And his dreams are shattered by Philip's past, because he idealized him, though he could have accepted this behavior in a book.

Katherine's mother has been the most important person in her life.  She wants to keep her mother and Philip together.  It is only Philip's deterioration under her mother's rule that begins to change her mind.

Somehow this is more dated than Howards End.  Howards End still applies to our new society:  the questions of home and class and family.  

The Green Mirror is the second in Walpole's Rising City series.  If anybody knows the complete series, please let me know.  I can't seem to find it online.

I like The Green Mirror, but it isn't in the class of his Rogue Herries series (liked by Nella Last, by the way).

My Kessinger edition of Hugh Walpole's The Green Mirror:  A Quiet Story ends with the preposition "in."  

"He went to the window and stood there, looking out. In"

That's it.  A page is missing.  Fortunately, I was able to read the last paragraph in a Google version online.


SFP said...

My ears pricked up as soon as you compared Green Mirror to Howards End, one of my all time favorites.

And wow, the university library has 40 books by him, including a Trollope biography and several worthy of being kept in Rare Books

Will definitely be checking Walpole out. :)

danielle said...

My library has 18 of his books, though not The Green Mirror. I sort of like B authors actually. Sometimes I wander the stacks in my library pulling out some unknown title and wondering if I should check it out and give it a try, but as we don't keep dust jackets I never know what I'm getting into. Anyway, my ears also pricked up at the mention of Howards End, like SFP it is one of my favorites as well. Thanks for the holiday wishes, by the way. Happy New Year!

Frisbee said...

SFP and Danielle, it's not as good as Howards End, but I did keep thinking of it. Rogue Herries is excellent, a kind of witty, bodice-ripper historical novel.

I think I may have a biography of him, but of course I can't find it.

I hope we find time to fit in all the books we want to read next year!

Linda said...

Found The Cathedral in a used bookstore in California last fall, picked up The Green Mirror in a used bookstore in savannah this spring - love both of them, thoroughly enjoy Walpole's insightful character studies.

Frisbee said...

I'd love to read The Cathedral and believe it's even on Gutenberg!

Thanks for reminding me of Walpole. I do enjoy his books.