Archive for the ‘Julia Strachey’ Category

51%2BcSzfloZLWhen I picked up Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey for the first time three years ago, I did so knowing that it is one of those Persephone titles that readers are divided on.  Many loathe it, others adore it.  I am firmly in the camp of the adorers.  I was charmed by it on that first reading and rereading it this month for Simon’s readalong I found it no less wonderful or humourous.

The humour is unapologetically black and the characters – except for a few supporting ones – fundamentally unlikeable.  On her wedding day, bride Dolly Thatcham is hiding upstairs in her bedroom with a bottle of rum while her family and friends – including Joseph, an old lover – mingle awkwardly downstairs.  Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister who is perfectly, horribly, awkwardly seventeen, and their young cousins Tom and Robert, who spend the whole day squabbling over a pair of loud and offensive socks, are the only characters who managed to win any sympathy from me.  Everyone else is awful, which is why I can laugh at their sufferings and delight in doing so.

The genius of the book is its determined lack of sentimentality: no one is treated tenderly, no romance given special treatment or sympathy.  Dolly is at the centre of a love triangle, about to marry Owen, a dull member of the Diplomatic Service, but driving Joseph, a student she had spent the previous summer going out with, almost literally mad with his unprofessed love for her.  And each of them is horrifically unappealing in his or her own way.  But that is what makes the book work.  We see everyone at their absolute worst, hysterical and brittle from the stress of the wedding, and Strachey turns that into comedy.

The first time I read this, I was struck by how it felt much more like a play than a novel (or, given its length, a novella).  Strachey never delves into the inner lives of her characters or even past events: everything is on the surface.  We are privy to exchanges of wonderful dialogue and are given rich descriptions of the surroundings, but that is it.  It was those descriptions that struck me the most on this reading, especially Strachey’s exaggerated use of colour, which she uses to make her characters appear almost grotesque: Kitty disgustingly observes that Owen’s skin appears lilac in a certain light; Dolly makes her face up with a “corn-coloured powder”; and, most strikingly, Mrs Thatcham’s eyes are described as orange.  These are not gentle descriptions but vivid, frequently repulsive ones.

As other bloggers have joined the discussion about this book as part of Simon’s readalong, it has been interesting to see how they reacted to Joseph’s revelation about Dolly in the final scene.  Some seem to take his word as fact but to me that seems problematic for a number of reasons (least of which being that the math doesn’t seem to work).  Joseph spends much of the book in a state of hysterical anticipation, building up to a confrontation with Dolly.  When it doesn’t materialize, he is disappointed, relieved, and still basically emotionally unhinged and desperate for attention.  All this leads to a dramatic tirade against Dolly’s mother, climaxing with some shocking information about her daughter that may or may not be true.  Personally, I am inclined to question it.  There is not one single thing that marks Joseph as a reliable source of information, especially given how he immediately enhances his facts once he begins sharing them and sees how his audience is reacting.

It was interesting to reread this again after a couple of years.  There was something electric about my first reaction to the book – my love for it was immediate and energizing and very surprising – that was lacking this time but I gained a new appreciation for details I had missed.  The experience was different – rereading always is – but it did not alter Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’s position as one of my favourite Persephone books and certainly, in my opinion, the funniest.

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I had heard so many mixed reviews of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey that I was almost holding my breath when I started it, scared that it was going to prove a disappointment.  I am happy to report that I was not disappointed and, if not delighted, then I was at least amused and rather charmed by this short novella.

It reads more like a play than a novel, which is perhaps the most delightful thing about it.  Every line, every description was mentally converted into a script with stage directions, since this is a story where very little goes unsaid or, at the very least, unobserved. 

On her wedding day, twenty-three year old Dolly hides in her bedroom with a bottle of rum while her extended family and guests roam about the rest of the house.  Dolly, frankly, wasn’t terribly interesting, nor was her tiresome old flame Joseph, who aspires to be “the clean-limbed, dirty-minded, thorough English gentlemen” (p. 58) but in reality spends most of the story lolling about with no clarity of purpose.  I was more intrigued by the rarely seen third member of this triangle, the bridegroom Owen – dull and dependable members of the Diplomatic Service have always seem rather ideal to me (being dull and dependable myself).

As with any good play – no, I’m sorry, novella – the supporting characters rather stole the show, particularly the ridiculous, romantic seventeen-year old Kitty and, even more humourously, brothers Robert and Tom, cousins of the bride, with their running argument over appropriate socks.  Tom and Kitty capture the true social awkwardness of youth, the desperate need to fit in and the complete embarrassment at anything, however minute, that their relatives might do to shame them in public.  Both take themselves far too seriously, which is both hilarious and bittersweet (being not so old that I can’t remember behaving the same way myself).  At one point, Kitty is described as questioning Joseph with “a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face.  This was her style of the moment with the male sex”(p. 29).  That aside, the allusion to the “style of the moment,” is as perfect a description of the whims of a teenage girl as I have ever come across.

There are many such asides, most of them throwaway lines from characters who appear only once or twice and have no relation whatsoever to the central plot, but it’s these brief flashes of wit that make this book so entertaining.  A random relation drunkenly ponders “is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?”(p. 39) to the horror of his elders with their decidedly middle-class ideals of morality.  Even Kitty, mocked by one and all for her silly flights of romantic fancy, reveals herself to be a conservative at heart when, after finding her sister drinking and moping, remarks: ‘I’m sorry to say it, Dolly…but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house.  It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate” (p. 56).  Oh Kitty!  To believe yourself a romantic heroine and then to utter such words!

A delightful diversion, overall, though I remain convinced that it would make a far better play than a novella.  After all, there is a turtle.  Most plays are sadly lacking in turtles…

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