“In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

fountainPejorative generalizations about the ‘traditional novel,’ like debates over the ‘death of the novel,’ often seem to me unduly preoccupied with form, as if broadening the range of human possibilities expressed through fiction isn’t also a literary innovation or revision. The Fountain Overflows is a good reminder that  just because a novel is linear, has characters, and tells a story attached (however lightly) to life at all four corners, it isn’t necessarily derivative, tired, or predictable. All the way through it I was marveling how unfamiliar it was — even though to all appearances it is perfectly conventional. It is its own strange world, populated with utter conviction, and, best of all, told in West’s endlessly unexpected (and always, in unexpected ways, thrilling) sentences.

The Fountain Overflows tells the story of the formative years of the Aubrey children: Cordelia, Mary, Rose (who narrates), and Richard Quin. Their father Piers is a journalist and political radical, fierce, inspiring, improvident. His indifference to his family’s well-being is a palpable thing (“I had a glorious father,” Rose reflects, only to conclude the thought, “I had no father at all”), yet they are devotedly loyal to him even as their lives follow his erratic, disruptive path from job to job and patron to patron. Their mother Clare is a pianist whose brilliant career was cut short by illness. Her absolute, uncompromising commitment to music pervades the children’s lives and, ultimately, the novel, which turns out to be as much an exploration of art as a values system as it is a family saga. Though a sensational murder story takes over the plot of the novel at one point, it seems a drearily mundane crisis compared to the catastrophe that is Cordelia’s insistence on playing the violin. “Cordelia had no idea that she was not musical,” Rose explains, and once she began lessons, she had “shown an extreme and mistaken industry”:

She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then, just in time, with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings. Her tone was horribly greasy, and her phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child. Also, she did not know good music from bad, as we did, as we had always done.

“It was not Cordelia’s fault that she was unmusical,” as Rose makes sure to acknowledge, but it does define her to Clare, to whom “Cordelia was someone who could not play the violin and insisted on doing so.” Worst of all, Cordelia’s technical proficiency deceives her pathetic teacher Miss Beevor into believing she has a great talent, and so the tension builds: how far will Miss Beevor’s insistence on fostering Cordelia’s “genius” take her? Will Cordelia ever realize that her playing is wholly inadequate? To her sisters, ruthless purists, her performances are an abomination:

Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.

The contest between Cordelia’s determination to keep on playing and the visceral horror her “musical idiocy” arouses in her family is at once acidly hilarious, and — once we realize that Cordelia hopes her violin will be her ticket out of her family’s isolating poverty — tragic. That Cordelia is profoundly misguided in thus attempting to use music to her own ends is never in doubt, though: all the energy of the novel supports Clare’s dedication to the highest ideals of art, by which “being fit to play Beethoven to Beethoven and Mozart to Mozart in the courts of heaven . . . is the impossible aim that all pianists must hold before themselves.” One of the most moving moments in the novel occurs when seedy, leering Cousin Jock — a man with no saving graces otherwise — stuns the gathered family with an extraordinary performance of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheo and Eurydice:

When I had heard Cousin Jock play before, I had thought he played too perfectly; it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil for power of performance and naturally enough performed without a soul. But now his powers dwelt humbly and faithfully with the triply mystery of the music he had chosen . . . That passage is sublime as pure sound; the mere relationship between the notes must cause delight. It is also a clear rendering of the climate of the legend, of the pure light of imagined classic Greece. It also states what is felt by all human beings when they have suffered a deep grief which is still, because they are not barbarians, within control, but is yet irreparable, even if its consequences should be afterwards annulled. . . .

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness.

Any sense we might have had that their revulsion at Cordelia’s playing was absurd, or at least disproportionate — that to compain “the music was profaned” when she played was to take music too seriously — is dispelled as we share in the respectful hush. To be “row[ed] away to the land where people were who are not musical” seems an exile more painful than the more literal isolation of the Aubreys in their shabby suburban home.

So that is one great surprise and pleasure and provocation of The Fountain Overflows: it challenges us to think about what music really is, and what it is worth — which is another way of saying that the novel is about life, and what it is for. “What is music about,” Rose asks Mary near the end of the novel. “Oh, it is about life, I suppose,” answers Mary, “and specially about the parts of life we do not understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.”

Rose and Mary — and, in her own way, Cordelia — are part of this cerebrally artistic world, but another fascination of the novel is that they are nonetheless children, and the novel also evokes the child’s world of imaginary animals and perverse adults who refuse to treat children as whole people. As the narrator, Rose seems anything but innocent, as she and her sister manage their unworldly mother and cope with their father’s eccentricities and withdrawals, yet she also reports things she sees but does not fully understand, West playing her point of view with Jamesian subtlety. She also (something else unexpected) accepts without question the presence of supernatural elements, from poltergeists at her cousin Rosamund’s home to her own ability to read minds — which, to her mother’s displeasure, she uses as a party trick. “We are Scottish,” Clare finally explains as she tries to deflect the interest Rose’s display has attracted; “we take these things more seriously than the English,” but the real reason is that Clare considers it unsafe to unleash these forces, which are not to be dismissed as childish fancies but rather repressed as only too real: “If there is a wall between the present and the future it is not for us to pull it down.”

The Fountains Overflow is apparently autobiographical: my Virago edition has an introducton by Victorian Glendinning that lays out the many connections between characters in the Fairfield family and those in the novel. I never know quite what this kind of information adds to our understanding of a novel: it’s not as if saying that Cordelia “is a portrait of Rebecca’s eldest sister Letitia” tells us what to make of Cordelia. It’s more revealing about West, really, that she would draw up such a portrait and then, apparently, have the nerve to dedicate the novel to Letitia, as if — what? she wouldn’t recognize herself in it? In a way, that would be the ultimate insult, perfecting the critique of Cordelia’s self-deception. I don’t know much about West’s personal life or character, but from that gesture I intuit that she (like Rose) put many qualities higher than kindness. There is in fact a cruel edge to The Fountain Overflows; that it’s expressed through aesthetics makes it none the less lacerating, and indeed another way of reading Clare and Rose’s musical idealism is as an elitism every bit as exclusive as the social snobbery the Aubreys disdain. Yet as I’ve said before, I think “the chief obligation of a writer . . . is not that she be nice but that she be interesting,” and I found The Fountain Overflows consistently interesting — not only for its intellectual preoccupations but for its human drama, which is as intense as it is bizarre. And I just loved turning every page wondering what sentence — funny or fierce, poetic or pathetic — would catch me up next.

5 thoughts on ““In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

  1. diana November 15, 2013 / 5:49 am

    This is one of my favourite novels….I travel with it ( very glad it is now available for kindle) and yet it seems that very few people have read it…..


    • Rohan November 15, 2013 / 2:45 pm

      Diana, I’d love to know how you came across it and what has made it one of your favorites. I was captivated by it but also kind of puzzled, because it seems to elude the interpretive categories I have for novels — I kept wondering what to make of things in it! Maybe that doesn’t really matter, since in the end it was just so interesting. I think you’re right that it’s not well known, though there seems to be a nice new NYRB Classics edition. I might have to pick one of those up, actually, because by the time I’d written this post my old Virago edition had fallen almost completely apart. 😦


  2. Susan Messer November 16, 2013 / 3:29 pm

    Another great review–well written, thought provoking, insightful. You have such a knack for choosing excerpts that catch my attention, capture something essential. I love this simile in the first one you quote, about Cordelia’s music, that its “phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child.” As a writer, I’d give anything (I think) to be able to come up with something so perfect.

    Anyway, I haven’t read this novel so I may be completely off about this, but could it be that Rose is at least somewhat unreliable in her insistence that Cordelia is entirely unmusical? that some of this focus on her failings comes from those darker sibling-ish places that make us want to put the sibling under the microscope, eke out the flaws?

    In any case, I am now very interested in reading this novel and will put it on my list.

    Thanks, as always, for your work.


    • Rohan November 16, 2013 / 7:47 pm

      Susan, I am just surprised over and over by sentences like that in West — they do seem perfect, and yet it’s impossible to imagine coming up with them because somehow they do something unexpected.

      I wondered for some time in the novel about Cordelia’s music — and Rose’s reliability. As far as I could tell, though Rose is not infallible (and in fact we occasionally get descriptions of her from others that take her by surprise and thus show us we don’t know everything) she is right about Cordelia . That’s a bit of a spoiler, I suppose, because as the novel goes along, Cordelia’s career seems to be going well. But she eventually is called to account, and that reckoning with her limitations is very convincing. I have the sequel, This Real Night, and I think that in it she has put her musical ambitions behind her.


  3. Joanne January 31, 2014 / 5:12 am

    I have just finished listening to the trilogy for the second time on audio book (read by Harriet Carmichael)and it is a delight to find others who have read one of the books and you have written about it beautifully. Nobody I know has even heard of Rebecca West so I have nobody to share my enjoyment with – except my Husband who listens kindly. I chose these books after reading West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon, a superb travel memoir of Yugoslavia just prior to WW2 with her deep, witty though sometimes slightly patronising observations on the people culture, history, food art and architecture. Something I note it has in common with the Fountain seems to be West’s concern (or should I say obsession) with authenticity – her elitism as you suggest. In her travel writing its seems she was always seeking the true culture, and was scathing towards anything she perceived as touristy and inauthentic (like Cordelia who plays the violin in ways she thinks will please people). Also her hatred of Germans – as represented by Rosamund’s husband. I did think that Rose and Mary are odd and I felt for Cordelia though she is horrid – but I can see why she couldn’t wait to get away from them not just because of the family’s oddity, but because she was the odd one out and shunned as such. I am now on a search to find someone who can tell me why Cousin Rosamund marrried such a dreadful man.


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