Sadly, my title is not a new form of weather forecasting, it’s the title of a Julia Strachey novella, first published in 1932. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009, and I admit that it was for that reason I pounced on this one when I spotted it in the charity shop. In my experience, Persephone seek out interesting literature for their re-prints.
Otherwise, I might have hesitated about that title. One thing I’m not keen on is sentimentality, and in my experience that’s what wedding plots so often are. Still, it’s a short book, only a hundred and fifteen pages with wide margins, and since I’ve learned that I don’t have to finish every story I start I’m happier to take reading-risks, so I bought it.
Which brings me to the first lesson I’ve been reminded of since reading this. Never jump to conclusions about a title until you’ve had time to think about it from several angles.
It’s tough getting titles right. Good ones create a balance between suggesting what might be included, and never quite pinning down where the plot will take you. Strachey, it turns out, created a peach of peaches with this one. The more I think about it, the more shades of irony I perceive.
Take that adjective, cheerful. Isn’t it an unusual choice to go with weather? Particularly since the morning opens, we’re told on the first page, ‘grey and cold’. Oh yes, it does get sunny later, but the setting is early spring.
A kind of brassy yellow sunlight flooded all the garden. The arms of the bushes were swinging violently about in a really savage wind. the streaked ribbons from a bush of pampas-grass, immediately outside the door, streamed outwards in all directions. this bush remained squashed down as flat as a pancake to the level of the gravel terrace in a curious way, and it looked unnatural, as if a heavy, invisible person must be sitting down on top of it.
If there’s one thing I like in a story, it’s contradictions between what’s being said, and what’s shown. This is a story that is layered with misdirection. Oh, there is a wedding organised for that day. The opening paragraph gives us a little more information than a notice in the Times would have:
On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service.
On the surface, this is straightforward information. We are looking at the middle-classes.
Here though, is lesson number two: the wedding might be the main event, but the first character we meet is not the bride, it’s her mother. I knew, right then, that I was going to enjoy this narrator.
What this straightforward manner delivers is the between-the-lines bits that any socially aware reader of the paper would have known. Mrs Thatcham, I perceive, is a force. The Hon. Owen is a ‘catch’ and I’m immediately wondering why Dolly is marrying him.
The next paragraph reveals that ‘It had been a short engagement, as engagements are supposed to go – only a month’, and now I sense secrets. That these two do marry, I have no doubt, since the narrator is using the past tense. But something, I soon realise is to be learned between five minutes past nine, when the story starts, and ‘Dolly, on her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, ran into Millman, the middle-aged parlourmaid‘ and the actual ceremony.
What happens, and doesn’t happen, in the course of a few hours is beautifully described. Here is economical writing. It reminds me of a Katherine Mansfield story, The Garden Party. The detail is precise, and illuminating, the characterisation light, and yet devastating. This picture of middle-class respectability is not kind, though it is subtle.
In the preface, Frances Partridge says that Strachey admired Chekhov, James, Proust and Groucho Marx. Yes, I can see how that works.