The Fountain Overflows is Rebecca West’s novel about an eccentric, highly musical family, shepherded through a series of crises by their overwrought mother as their charming, but utterly selfish, father keeps them mired in poverty. It covers a lot of ground during its four hundred odd pages – feminism; poverty; unhappy marriages; murder; poltergeists; and the recipe for the perfect pork pie – and is an engrossing, idiosyncratic read. I had suspected that this would be a wholly whimsical book, in the mode of something like the Cazalets or I Capture the Castle – and there is certainly whimsy to be found, as the children taste rain drops, wear magnificent costumes, and talk to their imaginary horses in the stables. But it is a whimsy laced with something bitter, as barely-suppressed violence and sadness ripple beneath.
The novel starts with the artistic, shabby-genteel family of five making ready to move to a new house – this time in the London suburbs – as their journalist father has been ousted from yet another job. The story is told from the point of view of one of the Aubrey children, Rose, who, along with her sister Mary, is training to be a pianist under the strict tutelage of their mother. Rose is bright, passionate, and incisive, and, like her siblings, adores her mercurial father whilst conspiring to support her beleaguered mother. Mrs Aubrey, was, we are told, once a world-class concert pianist, but has been reduced to premature old age and ragged nerves by her husband’s selfish indifference to the comforts of his family. The oldest of the four Aubrey children is Cordelia, a repellent girl who imagines herself to be possessed of a great musical talent; although, to the anguish of her family, she is entirely devoid of true musical feeling. The youngest of the children is the exquisite Richard Quinn, who bounces through the novel with an irrepressible happiness, bringing constant joy to the Aubrey women.
Several stories weave through the novel – and, in essence, they all follow the Aubrey women as they emancipate themselves from their “shabby Prospero” of a father/husband, each in her own way. It is a curious journey, filled with surreal, almost Dickensian interludes. In one scene, for example, Rose, her cousin Rosamund and their respective mothers expel a poltergeist from a tormented town house. In another, Rose causes a stir at a children’s party by appearing to be clairvoyant. In an extended section, Mr Aubrey attempts to save a woman accused of poisoning her husband from being hanged –reminiscent of Bleak House in the way in which it reveals the vagaries of the judicial system through his campaign: “You must have three judges acting together, so that each can think of the system, which he will do chiefly to abash the other, but which will nevertheless compel them to the proper service of the law.” And through it all, Mrs Aubrey has the Herculean task of dealing with her husband’s multitude of creditors, whilst trying to communicate her own musical ability to her children in order to give them a way of making a living.
The novel is, in that way, rather like quicksilver; impossible to pin down as it drifts through the Aubreys’ world. For me, that was both its great quality, and the thing which somehow prevented me from loving it absolutely. The characters are certainly drawn with a shrewd, witty, brutally honest eye: “She [Cordelia] was sitting limp before the mirror, breathing languidly while Miss Beevor applied pads soaked in eau-de-Cologne to her temples, and she was playing for an unseen audience as well, by giving tiny indications that Miss Beevor was not being as neat-handed as she might have been, and that she herself was exhibiting the possession of moral as well as artistic gifts of a high order by not expressing impatience.” It is masterfully written, and extraordinary as a record of a childhood lived in an artistic home, and that singular relationship between a child and her parents. “Because I was his daughter I could not have known all of him, there was that continent in which I could not travel, the waste of time before I was born and he already existed. I could not have been with him and his brother when they knelt on the dry red beech-leaves, with their laughing faces pressed against the pulsing silken necks of their crouched and panting ponies, the tree trunks rising sharp silver above them to the blue October haze.” I loved the constant pulse of feminism, too: the heroism of the impractical Mrs Aubrey who, despite it all, keeps her eccentric brood afloat and generally content; the sense that the women will make a living as musicians rather than as wives; and wry observations regarding women’s fashion: “We were still not fully enfranchised from the load of textiles that our sex had been condemned to wear, but we were transformed, so far as the weight we had to carry and our agility, from cows to the heavier kind of antelope.” Indeed it is perhaps testament to Mrs Aubrey’s irrepressible maternal spirit that you, the reader, weather the book’s storms with comparative ease; for no matter how bleak their prospects may seem at times, you never really lose the belief that life is essentially good and that art has the power to elevate.
As I say, though, my only reservation is that I found the quicksilver alienating, to a degree. I had the sensation of looking at the strange succession of scenes through a film of gauze; and although their creative sensibility allows the girls to rise above their circumstances, I found myself wishing there was something grounding them – something more earthy and visceral. Less blind hero-worship of the errant men, and more tears of frustration, or outright condemnation. Fewer wry asides, and more belly-laughs. Something less ethereal – a bit of grit in the oyster. In any case, that is entirely subjective and I can’t even quite put my finger on the source of my reservation. Luckily this is up for discussion in my book-group in a couple of weeks’ time, and I very much look forward to hearing some other opinions. If you’ve read it, I’d really welcome your thoughts, too!