Keeping Up Appearances. A Review of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
I’ve always had my reservations about some of the Bloomsbury Group members who have been critiqued as holding upper middle class and conservative interests. That said, I appreciate Roger Fry’s dedication to painting and painting analysis, I sometimes enjoy Woolf’s writing, I laud the near vanity Hogarth Press for publishing Fyodor Dostoyevsky and TS Eliot, and I appreciate the Pacifist views held by some of the members. But we also see Wyndham Lewis critiquing the Group as elitist, corrupt, and talentless. (1) and Andrew Sinclair who wrote about the group saying, “rarely in the field of human endeavour has so much been written about so few who achieved so little.” (2). As with any group there were hanger-ons who broadcast their association but whose creative outputs were generally donnish.
The legacy of the group became stylistic. A painting style developed that is impressionist-like, somewhat sloppy realism. Writers tended to mimic Woolf. Both stylistic continuations eventually became pastiches of original styles. The continued adherence to the style today I think rests as much on the way in which the styles often mean evading specific stylistic commitment as they do on a mythology of the Bloomsbury members as rule breakers whose lives were ruled by love, for the arts and for each other.
Today a sort of Bloomsbury mentality is moderately inhabited by “friends of the arts” or “the creative class. ” They dress in funky but expensive clothing, they show off their social standing at community art walks, they serve roles on boards of art institutions, and they fill continuing education classrooms on weekends and evenings. By and large their involvement with art is a form of posturing. They want to appear as the ah—teest while basically playing the role from a safe and monied position. In doing so they co-opt artists’ outre-by-necessity and outsider appearance. For these imitators, it’s all about the 3rd guest bedroom-cum-studio in their 4,000 foot open plan ‘forever home’ mentality. They may frequently be seen holding a goblet of muscadet while bragging about their donkey kicking of paint onto store-bought, pre-stretched canvases. That they actually believe in this charade is just their hubris taking over — hubris always does.
I went into the reading of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey with no preconceptions and I came out of it with the idea that hanger-on members must have been much like the characters I’ve just described. Resultantly, I wondered, should I say Strakey or Straquet as in Hyacinth Bucket when the Lady of the house is speaking.
CWftW is a sketch, and as such the author’s objectives are obvious at first glance. We can guess it won’t be cheerful and we surmise there may or may not be a wedding. We expect a secret revealed. In all of this Strachey’s goal is to write something like works done by George Bernard Shaw in Getting Married or Sam Shepard in Buried Child. It strives to be a situation of manners against which not one but two secrets are revealed— Joseph’s love for Dolly and the fact that Dolly had twins while in Albania the previous autumn. As a sketch, the work is trivial, rough, sloppy, disjointed, lacking pacing appropriate to its demands, without developed characters, and with a ho-hum plot and revelation. It is typical work hanger-ons of those with real talent tend to create.
According to Frances Partridge in the introduction, the book was written at Strachey’s aunt’s house, La Souco at Roquebrune (by which I assume is meant Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a seaside commune between Monaco and Menton) the aunt being part of the set that names their houses I guess. Partridge, by the way, ends her introduction by saying “I remember going to the hospital in Paddington to see her during her last illness. I was her friend until the end of her life.” I thought that eulogies were to be less about oneself than about the deceased. Oh well, maybe this is on par for a publisher who boldly admits it publishes books that “appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable…” I’ll just insert a big sigh here rather than go on a rant about what this probably means.
That CWftW was spoken highly of by Virginia Woolf is probably just marketing flapdoodle (Hogarth Press published it) because Strachey is not in Woolf’s league, and certainly her work be thought of existing in the same world as T.S. Eliot.
CWftW starts on a chilly March at five past nine and ends at sundown. We have Dolly, half sotted, who is going to marry Hon. Joseph loves her but he has not admitted this to her. He would like to and so he fusses and frets throughout the book hoping to stave off the marriage, but as a result of his procrastination Dolly marries. Afterwards, he manages to confess to her and she replies that she doesn’t really love him anymore (it appears she once might have). She leaves for the honeymoon Joseph spills the beans that Dolly had twins the previous fall while away in Albania. There’s your plot. The ending is flat because the book is flat. The secrets are dropped and I felt no emotional resonance.
The book has so little in it that there’s not much to say about it so I’ll focus on a couple of strange aspects. Strachey has a tic of comparing people and things to flora and fauna: “a phosphorescent orchid” (Dolly), eyes bulging like a bullfrog (Tom), “don’t be such an owl” (Kitty to Lily), you are an “elegant little fly” (Kitty to Evelyn), you must think of me as a “block-headed rhinoceros” (Evelyn), a gramophone sounds like tigers and a hyena, “glossy brown cow eyes” (Robert), the hall carpet is an angry sea serpent. This is only up to page 21 and it continues.
More than a few sentences are stale in an upper crust British manner such as “Her face was drawn long as a fiddle-stick;” others are unintentionally humorous in today’s world, “a girl who was for ever [sic] dropping things on to [sic] the sewing-room floor and ejaculating, ‘Bang!’” or “Kitty broke off and examined the heels of her shoe carefully both sides.”
Around the time the book was written and published, the UK was in the throes of a national depression. But don’t worry, people with butler and maid filled city and country houses have more important things on their mind. Look: Horrifically, lunch is laid out in the library instead of the nursery; appallingly Robert is wearing green socks; and “look, here’s the jam-pot nestling among the scones at the bottom of the cake-basket. Can you conceive of anything more idiotic?” The aristocrats are perpetually hung up on appropriate manners, actions, and language. I mention this because I suspect that Strachey held some of the same depthless aristocratic mindset she thrust into her characters. Something really bugged me about one of Strachey’s pictures, probably done while she was a model. It was her severe look, those arching eyebrows, and that dark severe bang and bowl haircut. Then it came to me: Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek.
Strachey probably attempted to write a novel in which ‘things go along normally’ acts as code for undertow emotions and rifts and eventually as a coping strategy against revealed and potentially devastating family secrets. All in all CWftW is too dilettantish to succeed in this arena. With a better punch line it might of been better developed into a stage farce, with slamming doors, wit, and conundrums caused by an over indulgence of manners. Strachey’s nod to Anna Karenina by naming the daughters Dolly and Kitty proves, as always, that greatness does not rub off by association.
Readers who want cruel satire on the upper class best head right over to Evelyn Waugh who does every bit of this a zillion times better. Readers who want dialogue covering for hidden agendas and wounds best seek out read Harold Pinter who does every bit of this a zillion times better. As for Strachey, strictly sketchy.
Lee, H. (1996). Virginia Woolf, London, UK: Chatto & Windus.
Sinclair, A. (1987). The Red and the Blue. Intelligence, Treason and the Universities (Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughten, U.K.