Our book today is Enid Bagnold’s best novel, 1938’s The Squire – a claim to which some of you will respond “Surely not!” and very much more of you will respond “Who the hell is Enid Bagnold when she’s at home?” The “Surely not!” crowd will be bewailing the fact that I’d single out The Squire for that top honor rather than the one Bagnold book you might actually know, National Velvet – but it’s true: National Velvet is a catch-pan full of room-temperature treacle, just about the most insufferably cutesy-poo ‘girls’ book this side of Fifty Shades of Grey (the first volume of which I finally got around to reading and about which I can only say: the fifty billion of you who’ve bought this thing and raved about it, made it into a cultural game-changer? You all need to get out more). The “Who the hell” crowd will be much larger and perhaps thus more justified, since Bagnold has vanished into the mists of obscurity from which – once upon a time – there was little chance of rescue. Two 21st century factors have come into play to change that.
The first, of course, is Stevereads! Here, no book is too obscure for me to find, read, perhaps love, and if love, rave about. The second is e-books: because any book roughly 70 years or older is out of copyright, many such books are available in free, carefully-curated electronic editions for download to your handy-dandy iPad. In fact, sites like Project Gutenberg have become rather thriving intellectual hubs, giving a broad range of forgotten or obscure authors a potential second chance at a readership they’d never get if their only chance was catching somebody’s eye on the dusty stack-shelves of an old library. I’m sure you’ll find Enid Bagnold there, although perhaps not everything she wrote.
I hope you’ll find The Squire, because it’s well worth your reading time (of course if you don’t I’d be happy to send you a copy…). The story is set in a stately English country house whose lord and master has left for a three-month business trip to Bombay. Ruling the village green, the servants, and the household in his stead is his wife (never called anything but “the Squire” in the course of the book), an imperious woman firmly entered on middle age, mother of four little children and heavily pregnant with her fifth. Her advanced pregnancy has made her somewhat listless around the house, a state of mind that Bagnold expertly contrasts with the often frenzied thoughts of the various servants around her, none more so than the butler, Pratt, whose thoughts are always jagged and dark:
Drink, no, he would not drink. For two years, as first-footman in a situation in London, he had belonged to one of those west-end clubs where stately men in soft hats, silk scarves and indoor shoes come silently to the side door when the day’s work is done. Men like Raeburn pictures, impressive English faces, long-jawed, faces like actors and bishops, set mouths and well-groomed heads; there behind a quiet door some could drink a bottle and a quarter in an evening. Always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers; able miraculously to return on duty at eight next morning, steady-headed, foul-tempered and ritualistic. He had known these men, seen how they held out to the last lap, and what was their collapse. How they dropped, ruined through the rings of service, each ring holding them awhile, till down they went to that hell of penniless men who have been indoor servants and cannot do a hand’s turn at a manual job.
The masterfully-done syncopation there – “always whiskey; a bottle and a quarter of whiskey; whiskey drinkers” – can be found throughout this novel, which mostly concerns itself with intensely feminine world of the Squire and her female friends, servants – and of course midwife:
“I have in my time,” said the midwife, “questioned the value of motherhood. I have seen so many bad mothers, poor, indifferent mothers. Yet often the babies do well with them. Often, when I have left a mother, the baby has prospered without me; though the mother was terrified at being left, and the milk gone down with her anxiety at my departure. There is something between the mother and the baby. Not only love, not only milk. Some sort of closeness. A baby when it has been so close to her needs to be close again after it is born.”
The time-frame of the book is set entirely in the husband’s absence – the point is to make our Squire the anchor of the novel’s world. And yet three of her children are boys, and one of them, obsessive-compulsive little Boniface, is (ironically? I can never tell with this author) the most memorable character in the book:
Boniface upstairs could not sleep. He was murmuring big words in the dark, well-applied but mispronounced. In the peace of night his veiled speech cleared, the eager horses of his mind galloped as they should, with beautiful hooves, driven at speed. Lucy heard him. Lying on her side in bed in the room next door she listened to the voice soar and drop and mouth its words, despotically lecturing in the dark. He who could not in the light conclude his sentences, left out his nouns, let go his half-voiced thoughts so that they wandered away, never to be caught again, he, when dark fell, defeated sleep and talked aloud in his room with a droning, steady clarity.
On page after page of The Squire, there breathes a remarkable sense of hard-won wisdom, of quietly confident insight into the most tender, indescribable aspects of motherhood and the bond between mother and young children. My favorite moment happens late in the book, when the Squire’s little girl finds her mother in the library working over a pile of bills and papers:
Back in the library the letters and bills were strewn, half-sorted, but Lucy came in and hung over the writing-table.
“What are you doing?” said the squire, dipping her pen in the ink.
“Why are you here?”
“To talk to you.”
They smiled at each other.
Enid Bagnold wrote a few other books over a long lifetime, from her superbly moving 1917 book A Diary without Dates (which was about her experiences as an army nurse during the First World War, and the harsh honesty of which got her summarily fired) to her brusque and at times quite beautiful 1969 Autobiography, which cost her almost all of the few surviving friends she had. But The Squire took her longer to write than any of her other books, and the careful preparation shows. Whether you stumble across it at a library sale or download it in a spiffy electronic version, you won’t be disappointed. This kind of book is exactly why some of us believe so strongly in the odd and obscure.