The new Persephones for Autumn/Winter have arrived & I’ve actually read both of them already. I read The Squire for Virago Reading Week a couple of years ago & here’s the review I wrote at the time. I can’t add much more to it but I do recommend this beautiful novel.
After reading Vita Sackville-West’s No Signposts in the Sea, about a man at the end of his life, I turned to Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, which is about the beginning of life. The squire of the title is a woman about to give birth to her fifth child. It’s summer, she lives in an English country house (not too grand) with her other children, her husband is a Bombay merchant, away on a trip to India & it’s the late 1930s. This is a book about women & children, the relationships between them. The only men are the doctor & the butler, Pratt. Neither is important. The doctor is almost superfluous, popping in & out for the odd visit. Pratt is a surly, untidy man. He has a love/hate relationship with the squire & a combative attitude to the other staff.
The core of the book is the squire, her thoughts, feelings, memories & sensations. She’s almost completely self-absorbed in the first part of the book as she waits for the baby’s birth. She’s withdrawn from the running of the household as much as she can (although when the cook leaves abruptly, she has to phone agencies & employ a temporary cook who turns out to be a mistake). She’s a loving mother, aware of her other children but for this little space in time, her new baby & the sensations of her own body are paramount. She’s detached from events outside herself. Her friend, Caroline, with her love affairs & her emotional upheavals, seems very far away although she lives virtually next door.
The squire’s most intense relationship is with her midwife who is due to arrive at any time. The midwife has been there for the births of all the other children & she will stay for a month after the birth to give mother & child a good start together. The squire & the midwife have a comfortable, friendly relationship. They talk about other women the midwife has attended & about the nursing home the midwife would love to run where she could create the perfect conditions for childbirth, calm & peaceful. The midwife is in a privileged, all-powerful position, at this moment of birth when a mother looks for reassurance & calm,
There were long silences and the curious medieval picture remained posed. The woman about to go into labour lay, clothed, but her belly exposed, thrilled, and silent, holding in her silence the very centre of a lively stage. The other actor, with her centuries of tradition, on her knees, listening with her slender hands for the creak of the gates that would open to let out her charge.
The baby is safely born & the squire spends a precious week bonding with the baby, the other children allowed in to visit briefly. Gradually, her total absorption in her new son recedes as she enters daily life again. She emerges from her room & takes up the reins of her life & the baby settles into his place in the family,
The squire took up a book at the breast-feed for the first time and began to read over the baby’s head. He stared at the shadow, and when he was older he learnt to kick it down, but from now on the milk came mechanically and the squire’s mind could range separately as it chose. From habit, as the days went by, like a cottage woman she grew bolder at her breast-feeds, and would walk from room to room, or give orders to Pratt over the baby’s working head. She nursed him in the morning-room or in the garden, the children were allowed with her, the baby watched them out of one eye as he fed. He was unpacked now from his mystery and put into his family life.
This is a book in which very little happens. It’s a very sensual book. The squire’s feelings & emotions are very close to the surface & the descriptions of labour & breast feeding are very intimate & immediate. The book was controversial for this reason when it was published in 1938. Maybe it was also controversial because the men are ineffectual or absent & the role of the mother is supreme. In some ways, it’s more a documentary or a slice of life than a novel. The squire & the midwife aren’t named & their relationship is the emotional centre of the book. Anne Sebba’s Preface fills in the background of Enid Bagnold. I only knew her as the author of National Velvet although I’ve also read her Diary Without Dates about her experience of nursing in WWI & I have another of her novels, The Happy Foreigner (VMC) on the tbr shelves. Enid Bagnold worked on the book for over 15 years as she had four children of her own. She was determined to express in fiction this most important side to a woman’s life.
This is a book completely centred on a woman’s life & I can see why it was such a natural fit for Virago & now Persephone with their emphasis on the importance of women’s experience.