Eighteen-year-old Rachel is a dreamy, idealistic student at the Slade and wants nothing more than to become a painter. When she paints an unflattering portrait of the local vicar, her aunt decides that this ungrateful girl doesn’t deserve to come on her planned trip to Egypt (despite Rachel’s obsession with Akhenaten and Nefertiti). Instead, Rachel is packed off for a year-long placement with an English family living in Brittany, to act as companion to their teenage daughter Thalia. Rachel’s first impression is that the Pembertons are much the same as any other military family wintering in a cheap, congenial climate. But, when Colonel Tom Pemberton returns to his regiment in India, she begins to notice deeper currents swirling through his household and, in particular, running in the veins of unloved, overlooked, lonely Thalia.
From what I’ve read about Faviell (and it isn’t much), it seems that her books were all inspired by events in her own life. Apparently she had stayed with a family in France just before the war, which must have formed the basis for Thalia; though one hopes that it wasn’t too direct an inspiration. Published in 1957, the book already has a nostalgic tinge as it’s set in 1936, the year of the Abdication Crisis, when prim, stiff-upper-lip expat society in Dinard is scandalised by the King’s decision to put pleasure before duty.
Indeed, this is a book about duty: the duty of husbands to wives, wives to husbands, officers to their country and, implicitly, parents to their children. As Rachel settles into the Pembertons’ villa, she comes to understand the unhappy dynamics bubbling under the surface. The mother, fragile and self-absorbed Cynthia, only has eyes for her little boy Claude, with his golden curls, angelic face and hideously spoiled manner. Her relationship with fifteen-year-old Thalia is considerably rockier. Rachel watches in dismay as Cynthia shuns her unlovely daughter and, in turn, tries to fill the void of maternal warmth with friendship. But she isn’t prepared for the fierce, almost obsessive adoration that Thalia returns to her – a schoolgirl passion that swiftly turns to jealousy when Rachel enters upon her first shy flirtation with a young man.
Faviell’s depiction of this tiny, claustrophobic community feels so true-to-life that I’m not surprised to discover that she had some experience of Indian army life. The families in Dinard are living a lifestyle which must already have been old-fashioned in the 1930s, not to mention the 1950s, when the grand old days of the Raj must have seemed long ago indeed. As a free spirit herself, Faviell must have shared Rachel’s sense of frustration with the conventions of an expat community, where acceptance depends on attending the right club, being received by the right people and, as far as possible, avoiding the natives – whether Indian or French. In the pretty streets of Dinard, two communities live side by side, Breton and British, equally suspicious of one another, equally hypocritical. When Rachel tries to bridge the gulf between the two, she finds herself part of a tragic tale which transforms a fish-out-of-water story into a bona fide tragedy.
The characterisation varies, in my opinion. Claude and Cynthia are both relatively one-note wonders and I frequently longed to bop them both over the head. Rachel is more complex, presumably drawing a great deal on Faviell’s own memories of being young, passionate but naive, an artist and a bohemian in a stifling old-fashioned world. But the most fascinating character, without a doubt, is the teenage Thalia, ‘swung in that painful, uncharted place between two worlds‘. Faviell captures the intensity of the adolescent: the all-or-nothing approach to friendship; the pangs of almost unbearable jealousy; along with a shrewd intellectual appreciation of the mess that grown-ups can make of their own lives. We will keep the ‘fact’ of her ‘ugliness’ aside, because for Faviell ‘ugliness’ seems to be equated with having lots of large splashy freckles all over the place, and anyone who knows me will understand that I’m rather indignant about this.
Although it’s a trifle melodramatic, I enjoyed the book, especially considering that I only bought it because I liked the cover and the title. I was expecting it to be a little cosier – perhaps more like a Barbara Pym with a dash of quaint foreignness – but I was swiftly won over by its air of growing tension and its unspoken secrets. Faviell has written several other books, also published by Dean Street Press, so in due course I hope to track down some more of her work: she wrote novels based on her experiences of being bombed out during the war and of living in Berlin immediately after the war, both experiences that I imagine would be well worth reading about.