Monday, June 18, 2012

{review} seducers in ecuador & the heir

Vita Sackville-West Seducers in Ecuador & The Heir ([1924 & 1922] 2011)

It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold.
Two lovely, classy short pieces (novellas? novelettes?) in one book: what could be better for the time-strapped reader? Simon of stuck in a book recommended The Heir, and (as usual) he's spot on. The Heir is one of those wonderful stories about the magic surrounding the discovery of finding one's right and true place. It is spectacularly snobby in one sense, in that our clerk hero ("the alien clerk from Wolverhampton, who hesitated to go downstairs to dinner because he feared there would be a servant in the room to wait upon him") is emotionally, morally and almost physically transformed by the unexpected inheritance of a Knole-like pile in the country. It is all done so tenderly though, that it is impossible to sneer.
He reconsidered even the pictures, not as the representation of meaningless ghosts, but as men and women whose blood had gone to the making of that now in his own veins. It was the land, the farms, the rick-yards, the sown, the fallow, that taught him this wisdom. He learnt it slowly, and without knowing that he learnt. He absorbed it in the company of men such as he had never previously known, and who treated him as he had never before been treated – not with deference only, which would have confused him, but with a paternal kindliness, a quiet familiarity, an acquaintance immediately linked by virtue of tradition. To them, he, the clerk of Wolverhampton, was, quite simply, Chase of Blackboys. He came to value the smile in their eyes, when they looked at him, as a caress.
This is such a beautiful story. There is little doubt that Sackville-West was ideally placed to communicate the emotional bond between (wo)man and ancestral home; the anguish of her loss of Knole (which Woolf attempted to restore to her in Orlando) is vividly communicated through the growing feelings that Chase, the heir, comes to feel for the enormous financial burden that is Blackboys, "[m]ortgaged up to the last shilling, and overrun with peacocks". It has a touch of the magic of, say, The Secret Garden, about it, but expressed with that careful Sackville-West seductive sternness of vision.
Chase stood looking at the bowl of tulips; it seemed to him that he spent his days for ever looking at something, and deriving from it that new, quiet satisfaction.
 *   *   *
Procrastination and a carefully chosen pair of spectacles would make him a very giant of decision.
Seducers in Ecuador is wonderfully eccentric; a bit like one of those stories where all decisions are made by the throw of a dice, however, in this case, it is a pair of coloured sun spectacles which lead their wearer into acts irrational, illogical, matrimonial and, eventually, murderous. 

Arthur Lomax goes on a yachting holiday with three companions:
It is now time to be a little more explicit on the question of the companions of Lomax. Perhaps Miss Whitaker deserves precedence, since it was she, after all, who married Lomax. And perhaps Bellamy should come next, since it was he, after all, for whose murder Lomax was hanged. And perhaps Artivale should come third, since it was to him, after all, that Lomax bequeathed his, that is to say Bellamy’s, fortune. The practised reader will have observed by now that the element of surprise is not to be looked for in this story.
Unfortunately, as they are going to hot climes, he brings along a pair of dark spectacles which rather alter his (inner) vision and, more dangerously, his value system. What is most intriguing about this is how little obvious change his hitherto unremarkable life will undergo, yet with such remarkable consequences.
There were moments when it seemed to Lomax, even behind the black glasses, perfectly ridiculous that he should suggest marriage to Miss Whitaker. He did not even know her; but then, certainly, the idea of marriage with a woman one did not know had always appeared to him a degree less grotesque than the reverse. The only woman in his life being inaccessible, one reason for marriage with anybody else was as good as another. And what better reason than that one had found a lonely woman in tears, and had looked on her through coloured glasses?
Ouch. The writing in this little story completely swept me away. Sackville-West does astonishing tiny little set-pieces of perfect observation; little bubbles of brilliantly worded near nature morte, such as the "The little Swiss waiter in his cupboard of a bedroom saw the sweat from his forehead drip upon the floor as he pared away the corn upon his toe. He sat, unconsciously, in the attitude of the Tireur d’Epines." 

This is a sad little story, yet Seducers in Ecuador is also very funny in a manner that is both cruel yet strangely empathetic. Really, quite an astonishing read. 

Rating: both quite extraordinary. 

If you liked this: The Edwardians (excellent); Pepita (odd). Incidentally, Seducers in Ecuador is introduced by one of my writing heroines, Lisa St Aubin de Terán {on whom see here}.



  1. These both sound like powerful little stories. I love the passages you give from them both. Great, descriptive writing and her tone is evident even in these snippets.
    I own a copy of The Edwardians, but have never read it. Now I will have to move it up on the TBR.

    1. Thanks Anbolyn! - now's a good time, with the Jubilee celebrations, to read The Edwardians, as there's a great Coronation scene.

  2. So glad you liked The Heir! I love that little novella, as you know - it's so powerful and beautiful, in such few pages. I have read Seducers in Ecuador as well, but I wasn't feeling well and I don't think I took much of it in...(!)

    1. Wow, it was freaky to read when well, given all the protagonist's mental links are sort of faulty!


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