Grace Kilmichael has run away from home. At the beginning of Illyrian Spring, she is sitting in a carriage on the Orient Express, hiding her tears behind a newspaper. Grace is running away from being Lady Kilmichael, wife to Walter, a famous economist. She’s running away from her unsatisfactory relationship with her teenage daughter, Linnet. As Grace Stanway, she’s a well-known painter & her work sells for considerable sums. However, she feels that Walter resents her work & that her children, Linnet & twin boys at Cambridge, belittle her painting as just a hobby. She’s also upset by Walter’s affair with a co-worker. Running away to the Dalmatian coast to paint, leaving a perfunctory note for her husband & without telling anyone her destination, is a revolutionary act for Grace.
En route to Dalmatia, in Torcello, she meets Nicholas Humphries, a young man in his twenties. Nicholas wants to be an artist but his family wants him to be an architect. He’s sulky, touchy & awkward. His bad digestion makes him fussy & he has all the over-confidence as well as the diffidence of youth. Grace offers to advise him about his work & their friendship grows as they travel together, painting & discussing everything under the sun.
They were getting to know not only the details of each other’s lives, but getting to know one another – a different thing. The process of getting to know anyone is not merely a matter of listening, watching and understanding. M Maurois has pointed out how, in any new relationship, we feel an unconscious need to create, as it were, a new picture, a new edition of ourselves to present to the fresh person who claims our interest; for them, we in a strange sense wish to. and do, start life anew. Grace Kilmichael was not analytical enough to recognise either this wish or this process in herself, but she was unconsciously doing it. all she realised was that she was finding this new friendship strangely interesting.
Grace learns about young people through Nicholas, the way they think, & realises that her relationship with her daughter, once so easy, has faltered because of her own lack of confidence. Nicholas is a fine artist & Grace believes he could make a living from it but his father is determined that he will not follow his dream. Meanwhile his sister, Celia, with only mediocre talent is allowed to study at the Slade. Lack of confidence is Grace’s problem in all her relationships & the journey she & Nicholas take is not only a physical journey but an emotional journey for both of them. The easy, affectionate mother-son relationship that they have at the beginning of the journey deepens into a romantic love that is never fully expressed & that Grace knows is impossible. The ending of the book is truly satisfactory in that both Grace & Nicholas are ready to move on to the next phase of life with the strength & confidence that their Illyrian idyll has given them.
But imperceptibly the tone of her thoughts had altered since she knelt in the Martins-Kapelle in Spalato. Walter and the children – this time they were not ‘after all’ hers; they were just hers , her treasure and her joy – she found the current of her affection setting towards them full and clear, without checks and barriers of resentments or doubts. How strange! How had this come about? Was this the beginning of freedom, she wondered, or just a momentary impulse?
Illyrian Spring is a book that has had rave reviews all around the blogosphere. It’s almost become a cult book as the Virago edition has become scarce & expensive. Luckily, Daunt Books have reprinted it so we can all discover what Book Snob & Stuck in a Book have been going on about! I’ve read quite a few of Ann Bridge’s novels over the last couple of years. Peking Picnic, her first novel & five of the wonderful Julia Probyn series, recently reprinted & made available as e-books by Bloomsbury. Now that my e-reader is behaving again, I’m eager to get back to Julia, I still have three books in the series to go as well as some other stand alone novels.
One thing that all of Ann Bridge’s work has in common is a wonderful sense of place. She was a diplomat’s wife & her books are set all over the world, from China to Portugal. The Dalmatian coast of Illyrian Spring is almost a fantasy land because the area which now comprises the countries of the former Yugoslavia has been changed so much by war & strife. Illyrian Spring was published in 1935 so the Balkan Wars are far in the past & WWII is in the future. Bridge writes about nature with such lyricism. Her writing was so enticing that she started a fashion for holidays in the region. The Prince of Wales famously took Mrs Simpson on a boating holiday there. Grace’s artistic sensibilities are also expressed in her admiration of the various churches & historical buildings she visits. I loved the sense of really being there that Ann Bridge conveys with her sense of atmosphere & detailed descriptions.
However, the relationship between Grace & Nicholas is the emotional centre of the novel. I loved Grace. Her quiet struggle for independence was so beautifully portrayed & the scenes between Grace & her family at the end of the book were a triumph. There’s a quiet feminism in Grace’s struggle to be her own person & also to realise that her independence is best for her family as well. Nicholas was less easy to like but I think that’s just because I’m much nearer Grace’s age than his. I could admire her determination to keep the relationship on a light, easy basis, especially as she realised that he was falling in love with her & even more as she realised the truth of her own feelings. The delicacy of these scenes is perfectly done.
I’m so glad I’ve finally had the chance to read Illyrian Spring. I agree with all the praise from bloggers & reviewers. It’s a lovely book about friendship, love & freedom set in an idyllic part of the world. Highly recommended.