Simon of Stuck In A Book suggested a readalong of Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Below, I reprint my review, originally blogged in September 2011.
Julia Strachey by Dora Carrington (1925; source)
A reread has not altered my opinion in any way of this book - I loved it, despite its EXTREME MISERY. If anything, rereading made me admire even more the atmosphere created by Strachey - all suffocating in colours and flowers and smells and enclosed spaces (to which I can now add a detail I missed the first time - the tortoise in the tin).
The symbolic overload (including things like people's hands: some 'like raw meat chops', others 'wrinkled claws') is completely oppressive, filled with that 'feeling of dismal foreboding'. Elements of this book go through one like a knife: I think, for instance of the mother, Mrs Thatcham, who judges a day's beauty by how far one can see, yet is completely blind to what has happened on this, that allegedly most cheerful of days.
Julia Strachey with a feline companion (source)
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Julia Strachey Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932 [Persephone 2002])
And yet it hadn't been love, but some depressing kind of swindle after all, it seemed.
Wow, this is a miserable little book. But it is also utterly mesmerisingly wonderful, especially if, like me, you like your modernism in small jewel-like doses. The story covers a scant day in the life of Dolly Thatcham, who is to marry the Hon. Owen Bigham, a groom very much on his dignity. As the preparations for the wedding unfold, and the wedding party rub up against each other in the cramped space of the Thatcham house, silences are broken and secrets revealed. Dolly's life falls slowly and gently and irreversibly to pieces as her domineering and socially manipulative mother struggles to hold the wedding party together.
Dolly finished washing, arranged her black hair with the rust-red strips in it neatly. She dipped something that looked like a limp orange 'Captain' biscuit into a pink bowl on the dressing-table, and afterwards dabbed and smeared it all over her reproachful-looking face, leaving the skin covered over evenly with a light corn-coloured powder.The whole toilet was carried out as a performing elephant might make its toilet sitting up in a circus ring, -- languidly, clumsily, as though her arms were made of iron....Dolly knew, as she looked round at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women, too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was steadily going forward.She was aware of this; but it was as if she were reading about it in a book from the circulating library, instead of herself living through it.
A couple of things really stood out for me in this book, and I assume that they can pretty much all be read symbolically if it is your bent to crawl about under the surface of this novella. The most obvious is the descriptions of the flowers in the house with their jewel-like colours and powerful, masking scents and arrangements. Colours and marks seem highly charged as well, perhaps to the point of over-kill, as in the bride's soiled white slippers and an unfortunate incident with an ink-well. [OK, she's not a virgin; we get it!] Then there are the mirrors, perhaps part of the distortions of truth which will come out as the story progresses?
I can see that the overload of symbolism might be overwhelming for some readers, but I thought its suffocating relentlessness totally suited the evocation of the bride's sense of despair at her inability to halt disaster. And then there's all the talking, talking, talking but no one ever saying what they really mean until it is far too late.
Persephone end-paper, 'Butterflies' by Madeleine Lawrence.
If you liked this... the only book I've read recently which can match this one for sheer misery is May Sinclair's The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. [ed. I might now add F. M. Mayor's The Third Miss Symons to this list of miserable yet unputdownable books]