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Monday, 12 March 2012

Betty Miller On The Side of The Angels (2)

Isaiah Berlin: Betty was a pensive and melancholy girl…she also had a quality which I can only call moral charm… 
Betty Miller, to a girl who asks her advice about becoming a writer: You should get married as soon as possible and have children. You have to conform with the outside world, do all the rituals of being a wife and a mother – but keep true faith to yourself and hide every trace of it.’   
This hyper-domesticated response describing  the  life of a writer - as deep undercover in domestic territory as any commando - also fits Honor, the main character in her novel On The Side of The Angels .

 Honor’s  baby, her toddler and her husband Colin (like Betty’s own husband, an army doctor in a wartime military hospital) define her actions, reactions and carefully delineated emotions. She perfectly evokes the sensual lassitude of  a still nursing mother with her  slightly messy domestic setting with strewn toys  and stained romper suits. Our Twenty-First century empathy for her dilemma is somewhat allayed by the full time but almost invisible presence of Edith the nanny/maid who , being cross-eyed  and not too bright, is unfit for war-time service, so is available. 
Betty’s  daughter Sarah,  in her introduction to the novel, says  her mother saw herself as thin skinned and very shy, as domestically incompetent  with an excessive fear of people. Whether or not this is true of Betty these characteristics are  deeply echoed in the character of Honor in this novel.
However although we note this apparent lassitude, with Honor sitting in chairs and deckchairs musing the time away, the reality of Betty’s own character is better expressed by her daughter’s description. Whenever I think of my mother, I see her in the dining room…typing rapidky on  her battered Olivettti portable, or , pen poised over her manuscript, rubbing her nose with her spare finger while she polished a sentence … then as soon as my father’s key was heard in the door. Typewriter, manuscript. Reference books and all were at once swept of the table and hidden away from sight. 
It is a fact that On The Side of The Angels replicates elements of Betty’s wartime experience in the wake of  her husband’s role as a physician and psychiatrist on army service.  In a note to the writer John Verney Betty said: ’…it is (but for the Commando Officer) an almost exact picture of the military hospital wherein Emanuel was a Lt .Colonel during the war… the book is very close to reality.’
The novel focuses on the social nexus of a military hospital where the professional  men are in  uniform, seen relishing their quasi-military patriotism and pirouetting around  the very peculiar CO who acts like their liege lord bestowing and withdrawing favours at will. The women – including Honor and her more feisty sister Claudia – are seen as intruders in this very male dance. The well drawn, charismatic Commando officer is a fictional device to add to the narrative thread of the story. But many of the others are, I think, close portraits, including  - in the middle ground  - Adrian Stephen, brother to Virginia W.
Running through this excellent novel like silver strands through are important ideas such the impact of  war on the individual, the seductions of  patriotism, the volatility of  identity, the cultural definitions of crime  and  the tacit nature of unexpressed love.
The details - of the house, of food, of the dances in the Officer's Club are perfect. But I most  enjoyed Betty Miller’s deeply sensuous, highly interiorised style which offers   an intricate psychological balance to the weight of these extravagant ideas. 
However , at the time, her dense, luscious style had its critics among people close to her.  Her mentor the writer St John Irvine was among these.  ‘Words intoxicate you … You have a high, if hysterical, sense of language and a quite extraordinary seriousness…but you overwork your words and you yield too much to your seriousness…’
Her friend Rosamund Lehmann is  a bit Parson’s Eggish:  ‘It is so intelligent and – rare treat – has a moral problem in it. Sometimes too stressing of sensuous impressions … as if anything a little overdone for my taste but there is some wonderfully vivid and sensuous writing; and the characters are stereotypically clear.’
As thin-skinned  writer myself I can imagine how  discouraging such views of her well-wrought work must have been. She wrote only six novels, only one of which is still in print -  Farewell  Leicester Square  Also a new edition of this novel On the Side of The Angels, introduced by Betty's son Joanathan, is due out in May
Much is made in the reportage of the fact that Betty Miller’s  literary reputation was finally established by the publication of her biography of Robert Browning  and her subsequent membership of the Royal Society of Literature.   However, in the end she only wrote six novels. One wonders how her deep talent for fiction would have developed if she'd had more positive encouragement for this form of writing from her circle, where a kind of benevolent  literary snobbery pervades the commentary.
As I read this novel I kept thinking of the work of Virginia Wolf with  her streams of consciousness and James Joyce with his tumbling piling on of detail.  Virginia famously abandoned thoughts of being a mother to focus on her art.  Perhaps Betty’s  talent for fiction was hijacked by her lack of confidence and found some expression in her focus on family life where, after all, one is always imagining lives to be lived or abandoned, lives rebuilt, or ways of surviving within th crucible of the family. That takes sensitivity , imagination and psychological eenergy.
Or perhaps she was just not given her due, in her time. Was there pure sexism in some of the  guiding critiques of her acquaintances and friends? Of her first novel her respected advisor  St John Ervine said. ‘Aren’t there enough novelists in the world  without you adding to their number? Aren’t there too many women novelists and not enough cooks?  If you had written to tell me that you burnt your manuscript  and made a fine cake I’d have cheered.'
This is a fine, absorbing novel. I recommend it to everyone.
 A small note: to the twenty first century reader this is definitively a novel of  the professional middle classes. The maid Edith is dismissively drawn (Called uncouth twice but that’s about it…) . But then one could say such things of Virginia Woolf.

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