"Perella", by William J. Locke (1925)
You'll remember my earlier post
on reading the odd books that come my way, specifically early 20th-century novels. "Perella" is the latest to add to the list.
I knew early on that I'd enjoy this book when I read a certain sentence on page 3. Here's the setup: Perella Annaway, 23, is in her room in a dingy pension
in Florence. She's been out for a walk in the rain, and her stockings are wet.
Should she reattire herself in dry clothes and descend to tea among the old trouts who worried her because she was a painter, questioned her curiously because she was the daughter of a well-known journalist, and criticized her clammily because she was young and possibly good-looking, or should she sacrifice the tea which she wanted, and frankly go to bed and stay there in warmth until the hour came for the farinaceous and oleaginous evening meal?
That is all one sentence. I'm sure you want to know the outcome of this gripping inner debate, so here it is:
She decided on bed. After all, for the moment, she was mistress of her destiny.
That's almost worthy of a Braxton's Lear award right there.
Perella is an aspiring artist, the daughter of a boozy Bohemian journalist named John Annaway. She's left home because "the hairy and joyous pagan that was her father" (there are a lot of references to his hairiness) has installed a mistress to take care of the cleaning and keep him from drinking himself to death. Bohemianism is all very well when it's just a matter of smoking pipes, drinking whisky, eating bread and cheese and cold ham and talking, but this is beyond the pale for a sensitive soul like Perella, so she's off.
Locke, the author, had a big hit in 1906 with his novel "The Beloved Vagabond", which popularized this "Bohemian" type - the unconventional, untidy, lawless, free spirited artist. Twenty years later, though, the bloom has faded from this character - he's actually a bit pathetic, letting people down, accomplishing little, and sort of petering out in futility.
John Annaway doesn't have a very big role in this novel, but he serves as a sort of prefiguring of the hero, Anthony Blake, young, handsome, charming, and an artist like Perella herself. He's a modified Bohemian - he can't stand conventional work, but he dresses nicely and enjoys the fine things in life.
Anthony and Perella are set to be The Great Romance of the book. Unfortunately, neither of them is really very interesting. Perella is supposed to be a sort of ethereal sprite, small, delicate, and easily overlooked by the boorish and undiscerning. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, there is a problem with trying to create this sort of character:
One of the most dangerous of literary ventures is the little, shy, unimportant heroine whom none of the other characters value. The danger is that your readers may agree with the other characters.
Locke goes on exhaustively about her littleness and fragility
Why he should ever have given a second thought to so insignificant a speck on his horizon as herself, she was at a loss to imagine.
Thus it was a Personage, that, in the guise of a tiny scrap of humanity, slipped along the side of the table and out of the room.
But for the happiness racing through her veins and going to her head like wine, she would have felt the most frightened insignificant atom on earth.
But the more he talked in his young magniloquence, the less significant of atoms did she feel.
That was where her modest little soul felt the hurt. She counted for nothing.
Of course, the poor little thing is wilting away for love, but by the time Locke is finished with her, she's flatter than Professor Higgins' squashed cabbage leaf. Even her great artistic talent isn't very convincing; she's not an original artist, she's a copyist. That is, she copies Florentine grand masters for people who want to be able to look at a rare painting in their own homes. A perfectly respectable job, and one that takes skill, but it doesn't mark her as a rare talent. And halfway through the book she shatters her painting arm anyway, so all her artistic aspirations come to nothing.
As for Anthony, he's the type who goes about saying things like "Tonight I feel the Lord of the Earth!" and
"No one can be a painter who doesn't know everything from Cimabue to Canaletto. My address for the next hundred years will be 'care of Luck, Chance & Co., Earth, Cosmos. Please forward.'"
Well, there are our heroes, or as Locke would put it, "Thus Anthony and Perella." Two more main characters soon make their appearance: Silvester Gayton, an old friend of Perella's father, and the world's foremost living expert on Italian art; and Beatrice Ellison, a rich widow of a certain age, and a great patron of the arts. These four are to form two overlapping love triangles: Perella loves Anthony, and is also loved by Silvester. Meanwhile, Anthony loves Perella, and is also loved by Beatrice. Typically, they all end up with the wrong person.
Beatrice is introduced in a rather ambiguous way:
Not only was she a beautiful woman, but also one of those aristocratic ladies to whom Americans, secretly hating their self-condemnation to Main Street democracy, point with pride and unquestioned justification as the finest product of modern civilization. With the ripe experience of the world which a woman has gathered by her early forties, she was at the height of her influence and charm. Like most women of her class, she devoted certain pains to the preservation of her youth, whereby she remained young in health and looks and enjoyment of life. She reigned somewhat as a queen in Florence, holding a position in the social world analogous to that of Silvester Gayton in the world of Art and Letters.
When all that money and Oil of Olay meets up with Anthony's good looks and taste for fancy dinners, the inevitable occurs: Anthony graduates from protégé to semi-gigolo status in about 30 pages. Of course, he tells himself he's doing it all for Perella, going off to the U.S. to make a name for himself so he can come back and buy her a peacock-bedecked palace. But along the way he sort of forgets about her, and she finally breaks their secret engagement, round about the same time she breaks her arm. This leaves Anthony free to marry Beatrice, who has unbeknownst to herself bought him with her fostering of his career, making him offers he can't refuse. All perfectly innocent, of course - they spend a long time agonizing over how it will look, and then finally keep their marriage a secret so that he can genuinely succeed on his own.
Meanwhile, Perella on the rebound has married Silvester, who is only about 30 years older than she is, but he appreciates her delicate, artistic spirit, and they seem to be happy. Naturally, the 4 reunite in Florence after a year or two, and the sparks begin to fly between Perella and Anthony. But, heroic people that they are, they decide never to see each other again; unfortunately, Silvester and Beatrice happen around the corner just as they are passionately kissing goodbye. Naturally, they reach the wrong conclusion, and then the novel really takes off in a weird direction, as the two oldsters decide to fake an adulterous elopement, in order to give the youngsters an opportunity of divorcing them and being together.
There never was such an elopement since the world began.
I'll say. It brings about my favourite chapter in the book. Beatrice and Silvester flee from Florence to London and thence to - Leeds, where they are to fictionally consummate their supposed liaison. The description of Leeds is so obviously taken from life, it stands out in the novel with a rare sense of reality.
Leeds is a great city. It has a Lord Mayor who looks after the comfort of nearly half a million citizens. It has many noble buildings, which, if washed and put out somewhere to air, would command the admiration of mankind. But it is given up to the making of material things, earthenware and machinery and leather, and Heaven knows what utilities; and these things cannot be made without factories, and factories must have chimneys, and chimneys, in spite of all kinds of legislation, must smoke, and smoke must affect stone; so that the buildings of the great city are inky black, as though they were composed of tired and corroded coal hating its second time on earth. It is a great city, but not a stately one; for the noble buildings are perforce separated one from the other by unstately gaps. The half a million inhabitants, mostly engaged in the making of things, must go backwards and forwards from homes to factories; from homes too exiguous for the broader joyousness to lurid amusements in dreadful palaces whose entrances are vaulted with glaring light. And so, to convey this crowded mass of humanity to its myriad avocations of work or pleasure, great high-decked trams, fantastically illuminated after dark, like ocean-liners on rails, clatter and scream endlessly, indistinguishably, remorselessly all day long, and seemingly all night long, up and down and round about all the thoroughfares, broad and narrow, of the great city.
You just KNOW that this writer spent a really stinky weekend in Leeds once.
Beatrice and Silvester register in the same room at the hotel, which is enough to prove their guilt, then he falls asleep in a chair while she goes to bed. Not before taking one more swipe at their romantic hideaway:
In spite of double windows hidden by heavy curtains, the cold air vibrated with the hell-sabbath of shrieking and shattering trams outside. Beatrice peeped through the murky panes, and found that this suite of honour was situated at a noble architectural corner of the hotel, in front of which met all the points of all the trams of the restless city....
She questioned the kneeling chambermaid.
"How long does this noise go on?"
She gathered that there was a long interval of comparative quiet between two and five.
Oh, yeah, that's taken from life, alright.
At this point in the novel I started to feel really sorry for Beatrice. I hadn't liked her that much until now; who really DOES like a woman who has everything? And she'd managed to lure away Perella's swain without even breaking a sweat. But now, Locke takes his revenge on her for daring not to realize her proper station in life as an old woman.
"I can't bear you to reproach me. Perhaps I deserve it. But I've tried--God knows how I've tried--to keep young; not only in my poor face and figure and so on--the physical side of life--but in mind and outlook and freshness of enthusiasm...everything that could blind him to the gap of nearly twenty years between us...and it has been no good...I've seen things coming...and now..."
She broke off suddenly and, stiff in her chair, stared in front of her as at instantaneously evoked ghosts of memories; memories that should have been so radiant in beauty--now stricken and withered, haggardly reproachful.
They showed the clutching fingers of the woman who, never having known love, desperately resolved to grasp it before it should be for ever beyond her reach. They showed her the imperious wiles which she had exercised with the command of her wealth and her influence and her lingering beauty. It was she who had willed, and he who had obeyed. She had held out lures of increasing intensity which he could not resist. Had she been syren of the syrens, leading youth to destruction, she could not have used her sex with more diabolical subtlety.... It was she who had dragged a first unwilling yet fascinated boy away from his young love.... She had never been honest with herself. From the first she had spread the snare that had eventually drawn him where she had craved him to be, within the hungering and foolish clasp of her arms.... And all the memories of their lives together stalked before her like unhallowed spectres.
"You wouldn't have suggested this--what it is as yet I don't know--but, whatever it is, you wouldn't have suggested it if--if we were the same age as they--if we weren't old--old---"
So now that Beatrice has been completely abased, never to rise again, we can hurry on to the windup.
Perella and Anthony take things at face value, and start divorce proceedings, with a view to marrying each other. They move to London, and Anthony stays with his sister while Perella goes to Caroline, the now-"widowed" former hussy who'd taken care of her father. She's really very nice, and has set up a teashop in partnership with another lady. And now, as James Lileks
has said, let us bow our heads in respect for a time when the following lines were considered a single
Christmas arrangements were made. Caroline and her partner, Miss Pritchard, for the past two years had given a private mid-day revel at the tea-shop, to which they invited some of their artist customers stranded in Chelsea over the gay season. It was a Christmas Dinner in fact, with champagne and pelting balls and false noses and dancing, and all the fun of the fair. To this mild orgy were Anthony and Perella invited.
Perella and Anthony finally discover the truth, that Silvester and Beatrice had acted out of a grand sense of self-sacrifice to give them their freedom so they'd be happy. Perella goes to find Silvester, a broken man by now, to tell him that she won't accept this sacrifice, and they end up back together. Anthony misses his chance to make it up with Beatrice, and, clueless to the last, still doesn't see why he shouldn't just get the girl he wants.
Anthony was young, with his man's career before him. Other women, strange, unknown women would yield to his fascination. There would come one especial woman whom he loved. The vague, inevitable shadow passed before her eyes, and she winced in pain. But it must come to that. And Beatrice, great-hearted, would give him his freedom whenever he might ask for it. Her pity went from him to Beatrice. He was young. He could grapple with life.... Beatrice, Silvester, from the point of view of youth, lay away remote from Anthony. That was where women differed essentially from men. All the fibres of her soul closed round Silvester. Beatrice stood before her tragic, heroic, beautiful, facing life with courage in acceptance of inexorable verdict.
So Perella is going to sacrifice the rest of her life to taking care of Silvester, Anthony will go on to be a portrait artist, and Beatrice, her reputation ruined, serves one last time as a warning of the dire consequences of mutton dressing as lamb before the curtain comes down.