My rating: 8.5/10.
No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!
She sat in a corner on the hard, dusty seat, her hands clenched, her heart beating with hot, thick, hammering throbs. She wished that she were dead. She was an orphan. No one in the world needed her. The Proudies whom she was abandoning had been very, very good to her, but certainly did not need her. The famous Mrs. Frost to whom she was going would almost surely not be good to her–and as to needing her . . .
Open upon her lap was a number of that shiny geographically illustrated paper the London News, and among other portraits was one of Hans Frost, and under it was written:
Mr. Hans Frost, whose Seventieth Birthday occurs on November 3. His friends and admirers are marking the occasion with a suitable presentation.
She had had this face in front of her, framed in a neat black frame for the last six years, had carried it with her everywhere, had had it always in her bedroom wherever she might be. For was he not her uncle, her famous, marvellous uncle whom she had never seen but had made her hero, her conception of God, indeed, ever since she could remember?
Nineteen-year-old Nathalie arrives at her Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Hans’ house, only to find that this is the night of that gala 70th birthday dinner. She’s tremendously relieved that she isn’t expected to attend, and after she is shown to her room, finally breaks down into tears of homesickness and apprehension, after her bags have been unpacked and her dinner delivered on a tray.
Meanwhile Hans Frost, the great writer, has received his guests and graciously accepted the wonderful gift his admirers have pooled together to purchase for him:
And it was a lovely thing! It was a very small oil painting and the artist was Manet.
The picture had for its subject two ladies and a gentleman outside a print shop in Paris. One lady wore a blue crinoline and the other a white; there was a little fuzzy white dog, the glass windows shone in the afternoon light, and beyond the pearl-grey wall of the old house there was a sky of broken blue and swollen white cloud. It was a very lovely little Manet. . . .
“Oh!” cried Hans Frost … He saw only the picture. He had always adored Manet, a painter closer to his soul than any other. He entered into the heart of a Manet at once, as though it had been painted for himself alone. He could be critical about everything else in the world (and was so), but not about Manet. When he was depressed or troubled by his liver he went and looked at Manet. . . . And now he would have a Manet all of his own, his very own–that deep and tender beauty, that blue crinoline, that fuzzy little dog, that white cloud against the gentle blue; these were his forever.
The dinner has been given, kind words have been spoken, Ruth has been a spectacular hostess – as always – but tonight an essential something has changed in Hans Frost’s world. He has unexpectedly met his niece, for, hearing her crying, he has gone into her room and comforted her – something of a surprise to both of them, especially Hans as he had not even known she was coming. The unexpected meeting has affected him strangely, triggering deep within him one of the creative impulses which have in the past led to the some of his best fictional creations. Hans feels like something is about to happen, an immense upheaval of his predictable, comfortable world, and of course, this being a novel, he is completely correct!
Hans, much to Ruth’s dismay, takes Nathalie under his wing and squires her about town. Ruth is deeply jealous of this new interest, this infatuation with the lovely young niece. She had assumed Nathalie would be far below Hans’ notice, and she immediately fears the worst, that the affection Hans feels for Nathalie is romantic, possible even sexual, though Hans has long since laid aside that part of his life, at least as far as Ruth is aware. But the relationship that has sprung into existence is something even more dangerous to Ruth’s peace of mind. Nathalie and Hans find they are true kindred spirits, and an idealized father-daughter, or rather, meeting-of-two-minds-as-equals friendship is quickly evolving.
Hans introduces Nathalie into the rather messy world of the striving writers, musicians and artists which Ruth has always scorned – at least until success and renown add a stamp of respectability to the untidy bohemians. Nathalie soon falls in love with a Russian refugee – London in 1924 is packed with ”orphans of the storm” from the recent revolution - and Hans finds himself acting as benevolent advisor and rather bemused sponsor to the young lovers. Meanwhile, his own marriage is in deep trouble, as he decides that the only way he can return to a semblance of his former creativity as a writer is to break away from his comfortable life and his socially ambitious wife and retreat to some place of solitude to await the return of his muse.
Hans and Nathalie solve their respective dilemmas, but not before much drama, most of it involving an offended and officious Ruth. The ending of the story is delicately poignant and emotionally satisfying, and the author has a few surprises for his readers in how he tidies up all his many loose ends.
An engaging story, which I have enjoyed with renewed appreciation each time I’ve read it. Very much a period piece, but of a superior type, in that the modern reader can fully enter into and embrace the world that the author has created and captured for those of us willing to experience it almost a century later.
The author has a well-developed sense of the absurd, which he uses to create satirical observations of the more outrageous characters and habits of the time he’s portraying, all the while maintaining a rather sentimental tone regarding his sympathetic protaganists, while setting up his antagonists for their eventual rout. Walpole maintains a good balance throughout, showing the internal struggles which make even the least likeable characters very understandably human, and worthy of at least a morsel of our sympathy.
I wish I could express in words the special quality of Hugh Walpole’s writing in this novel, and why I find it so appealing, but I won’t bother with over-analysis for fear of destroying my affection for it by too much probing. No deep messages or life-and-death dramas, merely an entertaining tale, competently told, focussing on various human relationships. Not much more – but in this case that is quite enough.