Sorry for the delay in blogging but this took some time reading. Relieved you all seem to have enjoyed it more than me!
I, like Emily, want to get to the bottom of the title. It is told from at least four standpoints: Sibyl herself, Tilly the servant, Auntie Mack and finally Maisie. We therefore have at least two unreliable narrators (Sibyl, whatever she says about being truthful, she is manipulative first and foremost so surely manipulates narrative? and Tilly) and a naïve and sometimes uncomprehending narratee (?) in Rebecca. So what’s true, and what’s the reason for telling the story in this form? In the introduction in my VMC edition, Janet Watts states authoritatively that: ‘This novel is a ballad, and Sibyl Jardine is its source’.
But, whilst she’s the source in the sense that she’s the epicentre of the story, what I think the title may be getting at is that ballads are composed from many sources, that come together to make a
story, if not the
story. Does that help Emily?
The story itself is rather melodramatic and very long: basically Sibyl leaves home and her children, who are then brought up in less that ideal circumstances by her ex-husband, whilst she attempts to regain them. Ianthe, no doubt as a result of this, is also a bolter, who leaves her children and then wants to find them again – but by this time, she is deranged. All this gradually unfolds in over-long monologues to Rebecca, and seems very contrived and, for me, difficult to keep a grip on.
Where the narrative works best, I think, is at the beginning where Rebecca and her sister meet Sibyl and her grandchildren (ie Maisie) and then at the end, where Maisie and Rebecca are reunited to finish the tale – ie where it is first hand narration. Lehmann wanted to write a short story to grow from her own ‘childhood memories of picking primroses on a round green hill with a church on top and a garden wall with a small blue door in it’.
Which is exactly how she starts but when the blue door is opened in her story, ‘Suddenly, Mrs Jardine sprouted in my book’. ‘The author does not ‘invent’ his [sic] characters or know about them from the outset’
. Mrs J took over the story: ‘Once the name and the face are there, they begin to develop, to speak, to have relationships
.’ (p ix in my copy)
I found neither the form nor the story entirely convincing. There are good ideas, such as ‘I am no bigot in agnosticism. One must have humility and the imagination to honour all deep human experiences – not least those one has never come near to sharing’
p 118. Good images: ‘the general aroma of frayed moral fibre which she had sniffed on her return’
p 202. And an intriguing inter-generational attraction for Gil the sculptor, from Sibyl, Ianthe and Maisie – which I would like to see filmed! Not, I think, her best book but I will read A sea-grape tree,
which follows Rebecca’s post-war fortunes. I’ll let you know how I get on, and whether it answers any of our questions.
As to your comments, I fully agree with Sue’s musings on early feminism etc and in the unlikely event of my rereading, I’d take that as my theme. Can’t help with any more of E’s questions but would like to add one of my own: who is Peregrine who appears (I think for the only time) on p 226 “‘Peregrine’ I said. ‘Is he still alive?’ ‘Yes…he lives with the Gillmans’” ???
I’ll return to the poetry when I feel stronger, but yes Emily, Mari Strachan did list The World’s Wife
as one of her top three books. Can I suggest that on reading it we each note our three favourites (if you can restrict yourselves to three) and then we can see if we have any consensus?