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on August 7, 2008
These two stories brought together in the Penguin Classics series (but also available in other editions) are related in setting and theme. One, published in 1932, is a mere novella; the other, from 1951, is a short novel. Together they reveal the work of a charming but minor British writer of the second quarter of the Twentieth Century. On the evidence of these works, Julia Strachey emerges as a comedian of sentiment; think Evelyn Waugh with the sensibility of Elizabeth Bowen. The main difference between the two books is the balance between comedy and feeling in each.
CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING comes over as a brilliant comic set-piece in search of a novel to contain it. The setting is the large house in the South of England, staffed by a fair number of servants whom the owner, Mrs. Thatcham, is unable either to manage or to comprehend. Dolly, the oldest of the Thatcham children, is to be married in the afternoon, and a number of relatives and friends are gathering for the occasion. All of them are peculiar in one way or another, and most of the story proceeds in an almost surreal montage of comic dialogue. But the bride herself, Dolly, has cold feet and fortifies herself with surreptitious swigs of rum. Meanwhile a former suitor, Joseph Patten, wanders around trying to summon the courage to talk privately to Dolly, something he should have done ages ago. He gets his chance almost at the end of the story, but not in the way he expected. Suddenly, bits of back-story come tumbling confusedly out, but too late to affect the course of events. Joseph has missed his opportunity, but he is not the only one. For a brief moment, we sense the traction that the story might have had, if Strachey had only given these characters more depth.
Although written two decades later, AN INTEGRATED MAN occupies the same time period (the thirties), the same location (the Dorset coast), and the same upper-middle-class lifestyle, where people might stay with friends for months at a time, and houses were supplied with numerous servants to look after them. Gwen Cedar, the hostess here, appeared as a minor character in the earlier novella, and shares Mrs. Thatcham's incomprehension of the servants -- although she goes one further by treating them to forced lectures on aesthetics. The contemporary satire is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Strachey, who was married to two artists herself, gets in numerous references to modern art and coffee-table theories about everything from social progress to radical education. For her two main guests, Aron and Ned, are educational theorists who have just bought a boys' boarding school to use as a showcase for the most progressive approaches.
Forty-year-old Ned proclaims himself on the first page of the book as "an integrated man," fully in command of himself and in tune with his surroundings. What hubris! For before long, Ned has fallen head over heels in love with Aron's new wife, Marina. Or rather, fallen in lust; the distinction is important to both Ned and the author, who writes obliquely but with surprising frankness about Marina's physical effect on Ned. I imagine that I am not alone in recognizing the syndrome that Strachey analyzes so precisely, but she is less good at making me actually re-live it; I always feel I am watching Ned from the outside. Towards the very end, however, when this comedy of desire reaches a climax involving the danger of real people getting really hurt, there are a few moments that have the frisson of true emotional agony. But only a few. While this is much the more substantial of the two books, and certainly worth reading for its social observations, Strachey's comedic bent gets in the way of her potential as a novelist, resulting in another missed opportunity.