Friday, June 13, 2008

Reading Journal: "Rumour of Heaven"

Beatrix Lehmann, Rumour of Heaven. Virago Modern Classics. First published in 1934. Reprinted in 1987.

Beatrix Lehmann, as she appeared on an episode of Doctor Who near the end of her life.

Rumour of Heaven
is a peculiar book. It begins with Miranda Mirova, the most celebrated ballerina of her age, and her husband, man of letters William Peacock, enjoying their status as the toast of London society. Then Miranda and William have a child, a daughter named Clare, and things change. Miranda and William retreat from society to mouldering Prince's Acre, a run-down rural estate near the sea in the south of England. Miranda craves obscurity. "We are not well hidden," she tells her children—beautiful Clare and her emotionally, mentally and physically stunted siblings Hector and Viola. Miranda descends deeper into madness, and then dies, leaving William shattered and Clare with the task of holding the lives of her siblings together. Hector lives like an animal, climbing trees and crawling along rabbit trails, easily startled and barely capable of speech. Viola obsessively reads and re-reads Wuthering Heights until she can no longer distinguish between fiction and reality. Meanwhile, three men arrive at Prince's Acre—a shell-shocked literary man; a painter; and an explorer who claims to have discovered an edenic unpopulated island in the South Pacific. It's difficult to make all of these elements work together: damaged eccentrics, Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare, a Cockney housekeeper whose speech is overgrown with transplanted haitches, and ideas about how death prepares fertile soil for new life and new creativity. Lehmann doesn't entirely succeed: the fragile eccentricity of her characters threatens to overwhelm their humanity; they become grotesques who generate little real sympathy.

Beatrix Lehmann published two novels, but she was better known as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. As a novelist, she was overshadowed by her sister Rosamond Lehmann. Reading Rumour of Heaven, I could see the Shakespearean actress at work, mulling over themes from The Tempest and Twelfth Night—where else did she get the names Miranda and Viola for her characters?—as her emotionally shipwrecked characters fail to connect, fall in the love with the wrong people, and move through an oddly spellbound world of beauty and loss. And then there is the island—is it real or imaginary? There are interesting ideas percolating through the novel, but the odd and oversensitive characters remain too opaque to make the novel truly compelling.

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