Friday, 28 January 2011
Penguin no. 88: The Green Lacquer Pavilion by Helen Beauclerk
This novel is a fantasy; the story it tells is unconstrained by the plausible or the possible. The green lacquer pavilion of the title is seemingly a portal between England and the Orient, although this is an Orient of unusual dimension in that no matter how far one journeys from the pavilion it is always close at hand. The experiences of the characters who travel through the portal seem dream-like, and yet cannot be dreams because they are experienced collectively. They feel these experiences intensely and they are changed by them. But in the end it remains curiously unexplained and unremarked on: they simply continue with their lives.
The book was written in 1925, but the story is set in 1710. The book seems to have been written to reflect the prose and structure of the earlier date, as though it was authentically an 18th Century work. And the story begins in that vein as well: a group of upper-class acquaintances travel to a country house outside London to spend the weekend. We follow them through their first evening together, and the defining aspect of each personality is revealed.
The love of Lady Taveridge's life had to make his own way as a younger son. She chose instead to marry for comfort, and now finds herself bored and lonely. Her unperceptive husband, Sir John, is convinced of her devotion, and brags of it at length. Lady Bedlow thinks herself more interesting than she is and bores others with her reminiscences. Her husband fancies himself an enlightened politician. Mr Gilvry is a philosopher, pictures himself as a Sage, and has a passion for Satan. The widow Mrs Wynton craves the attention of young men, and looks in Mr Clare's direction. But Mr Clare has eyes only for Julie, the Bedlows' niece.
And so these are the travellers through the green lacquer pavilion which suddenly appears before them in the Taveridge drawing-room. Once they have passed through the portal it closes, trapping them in the East. When they hear the approach of an army some flee and some stay, but they all are flung into a life of adventure. Fate contrives to divide them into three groups, with husbands separated from wives, and we follow the story of each of these groups in turn, from the time they separate until the time they find their way back to the pavilion, and so return to England. Each adventure derives from the personalities or life stories of the participants: perhaps the path not travelled, or a truth unacknowledged. There is no tension, and the focus is not on what has been left behind and how it will be recovered, but on living and intensely experiencing the new and unfamiliar. The epilogue finds them seated again around the Taveridge dinner table, clearly altered by their adventures, but not alluding to them. And with the memories beginning to fade.
Fantasy is not something I would consciously choose to read. For me, the critical observer alluded to in the above passage dominates, and I inevitably prefer to read books which can be analysed. A story which is unconstrained, in which any solution is possible, tends to be unsatisfactory. However, I could appreciate the originality of the book, and I enjoyed the rich prose and the delightfully droll chapter headings. But my attention did begin to fade towards the end, and although it was a novel experience to read a book of this nature, I found it a little tedious.