I'd forgotten that this great book was another 1938-er till I read Ali's review of it yesterday. So I went back to the archive and found what I'd said about it when Persephone published in a few years ago -- there was a golden period when they used to send me review copies, and this was one of them -- alas, no more. Anyway here's the review, much as it first appeared. I've shamelessly pinched the cover picture Ali used.
Imagine To the Lighthouse written by Mrs Ramsay expecting her fifth child, and you get something of the spirit of this intense and passionate novel, said Margaret Drabble, writing about Enid Bagnold's 1938 book in the Guardian a few years ago. I'm not sure what Virginia Woolf would have said about this, as apparently she was not impressed by Bagnold. But I do see what Drabble meant. And however you look at it, this is a truly remarkable novel.
Normally I read books very fast, especially if I'm enjoying them. But I read The Squire very slowly, or rather in quite small chunks, oddly enough for much the same reason. Much has been written about the content of the novel, and I'll get to that in a minute. But I was really blown away by the style, if that's the right word, and wanted to savour it. If I call it poetic, that may put some people off, but there you are, that's really the best word for it. Here's a tiny example:
The thunderous light of the earlier afternoon still lingered about, and down at the sea it lit the shore. The paddling bodies on the fringe of the oncoming tide glittered as they moved. Old women's pallid faces turned green in the strange aquarium sunlight, and the naked children shone like buttery metal.
Nice. But what you have to understand is that the poetry of the writing is not just gratuitous. Far from it. I've no idea how Bagnold wrote in her other work, but here it is clear that the whole beautiful, dreamy ambiance of the novel is a reflection of the state of mind of the protagonist, whose name we never learn. It is she who is called the squire, because, her husband working away from home, she is the Begum of this masterless mansion. And, as the novel begins, she is within days, perhaps hours, of giving birth to her fifth child. Anyone who has ever been pregnant will probably recognise something of the squire's intense inwardness at this crucial time, though it has to be said that most of us will not have had so much time and space to indulge it. For the squire has many servants, including a nurse, a nurserymaid, and a visiting but temporarily resident midwife. I can well imagine how cross and resentful this may make some readers. But please, if you think you may be one of them, do suspend your political or feminist judgments and give the novel a chance.
The fact is that the leisure afforded to the squire by the fact that other people take most of the household work off her hands (her greatest problem is the need to find new staff to replace ones who have left or been sacked) enables her to fully appreciate and explore her inner musings on birth and motherhood - and also on death, as the squire is crucially aware that she will not be there forever, and that her children, too, will grow up, grow old, and die. For, though her primary focus is on the coming baby, the squire is intensely involved with her existing family. As apparently this novel was closely based on Bagnold's own life, I found it impossible not to wonder about the originals of these four children, all so different, and all so much loved and appreciated for their own individuality. Quiet, sensible Jay, lovely, sensitive, anxious Lucy, Henry the baby, now about to be dethroned by the new arrival - and Boniface, strange, clever, a complete law unto himself. I managed to take a 'Look Inside' Anna Sebba's biography of Bagnold, thanks to A----n, and saw that one of her sons, Richard, was "causing her deep anxieties", so I suppose he might have been the model for Boniface. If so, Bagnold has not transmitted the anxiety into the novel, as, though undoubtedly an unusual child, Boniface is depicted with great love and acceptance.
Great though the portraits of family, friends and servants may be (and they are), the primary interest for readers then and now must be the close focus on the experiences of the late stages of pregnancy, of chidbirth, and of breast-feeding. Certainly no author before had ever shown anything remotely similar before, and if they have done so since must by definition be doing it in the shadow of this remarkable book which, in this respect, could never be bettered. It's very interesting to see how different was the approach to birth and especially to what happens immediately afterwards, at least to women of this social class. The squire stays in bed for at least a week after the birth, and the baby is brought to her for feeding, staying the rest of the time with the fiercely protective midwife. The squire must be kept calm at all times, especially before the feeds, in order to establish a proper routine for mother and baby. The whole thing really resembles a religious ritual, and in fact the squire refers to the doctor and the midwife as 'a monk and a nun'. Nowadays, of course, most people are turfed out of hospital after 24 hours and left to fend for themselves.
When I first started reading The Squire I kept being reminded of something else I had read and loved, and I suddenly realised it was Henry Green's Loving, a novel I reviewed a couple of years ago. Not in terms of the plot, obviously. But both novels are set in remote, grand country houses with plenty of servants, both novels have interesting, rather odd butlers, and above all both are written in a style which once again I must call poetic. Could Green, whose book came out about six years later, possibly have read Bagnold? Probably a silly idea, and it doesn't matter anyway, though I could say 'if you love Green you'll love this', except that blurbs like that drive me wild.
Anyway, it's a great book and hooray for the 1938 Club for reminding me of it.