Because the skies were cloudy here in Virginia at the time of the recent transit of Venus, I decided to read the book instead. I had admired The Great Fire very much, but that did not prepare me for the tour de force that is this book. It ranges far and wide in geography and time and uses language that is breathtaking and demands (and deserves) much re-reading.
We meet Caroline and Grace Bell at the country house of Grace’s fiance’s family in England; they had arrived from Australia. When they were children, their parents died when a ferry, the Benbow, overturned and sank. Christian Thrale, Grace’s fiance, every afterwards referred to this event as a “boating accident” which perfectly illuminates Christian. I do love this little description of the enthralled Christian when he is having tea with Caro with Grace sitting between them:
On the sofa Christian was a man on a river-bank, not so much gazing at the other side as aware of a current into which he must plunge. He saw Grace shining and rippling over afternoon stones. She leadeth me beside the still waters.
Poor Australia is revealed as a place that one must leave — the history studied is British, except for the grim week given to Australian History. They lived with their older half-sister Dora near the harbor where ocean liners “took the fortunate to England.” Dora was a trial: “Dora was becoming an afflicted region, a source of abrupt conflagration.” Caro came realize that Dora created unhappiness. She wondered if every house she passed “concealed a Dora. Whether in every life there was a Benbow that heeled over and sank.”
Even before we meet the sisters, we encounter Ted Tice and early on, we learn that he will take his own life years hence. We assume that the tragedy is that he is instantly and permanently smitten with Caro and though she connects to him, she will only be his friend. The story focuses on Caro who takes up with a bounder named Paul Ivory whose depths of bounderness are not revealed until near the end of the book. She recovers from him and marries a lovely American who rescues her from her sadness and the horrid office life in 1950s London. After some years of happy marriage, he dies suddenly. Caro and Ted have remained on friendly terms through the years. The connections between Ted, the bounder Rex, and Caro are revealed to Caro in a shocking scene that changes her view radically. In the very last page yet another tragedy occurs (that you must read closely to see) that explains why Ted takes his own life.
Though the transit of Venus is mentioned often throughout the book, I didn’t know quite why until I read Nancy Dew Taylor’s critique written in 1984 in World Literature in English. The transit of Venus is the lining up of the sun, Venus and the earth, so that the Venus appears as a black dot against the sun for a few hours twice in a century. It’s importance in 1769 was that the alignment would allow a measurement that revealed the size of the solar system. At the end of the book, it becomes clear a particular alignment of three characters (Caro, Ted and Paul) occurred briefly in a certain pattern that changed lives.
There are countless passages that I noted for various reasons. Here’s one from a letter Ted wrote to Caro when he was a student in Paris, telling her what he’s been doing:
Have seen a good play … and Senator Kefauver on television. Kefauver dismaying enough, God knows, but I am regarded as his champion here, there being so much facile and uninformed anti-Americanism among my colleagues. I dislike unanimity (or solidarity as it’s perniciously called), and anyway the mindless Soviet and China worship bores me — particularly in this land of en principe.
This is getting too long, but I must recount the Marmite bit. Paul Ivory’s father, a sympathetic character who had been a Japanese prisoner of war, had kept a 3 ounce jar of Marmite (beef extract) intact throughout the 4 years in starvation conditions. Paul (the bounder) Ivory says
The day after he got home he produced this jar of Marmite with the rusted top. Plonked it down on the lunch-table and told us in his graveyard voice it hadn’t been touched in 3 years and so-and-so many months of starvation in the camp, and had been with him at every meal. Not bombastic, of course, the off-handedness being part of the larger vacancy. It was one of those occasions you can’t rise to because you don’t accept the rules. I couldn’t stand it — the devotion to Marmite, the reverential baffled silence round the table….And I unscrewed the bloody thing and dug my spoon into there and then, to desanctify the Marmite cult before it took hold of me too and embalmed me.
Paul then asks Caro, “Well, then speak to me. Or is that a damned Marmite look on your face too?” Caro tells him his story is brutal and Oedipal, and perhaps it did give her a Marmite look. Like the Benbow references, Marmite becomes shorthand.
This is the best book I’ve read this year and longer.