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Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey (1932, Persephone 2009)

This book came to my attention in a blog entry that described it as a slapstick. I expected, therefore, to be entertained in the way that one is entertained by Wodehouse and Benson and Waugh, or perhaps by Nancy Mitford. Ridiculous and/or satirical developments would put characters in hilariously mortifying spots.

Within twenty of the book's sparsely-printed pages, I was beginning to hate Cheerful Weather. It wasn't funny at all — not in the manner of the four classic writers whose vein I was expecting to see worked. Julia Strachey's style seemed pinched and sour — and boring, as I had no idea where anything was going. Then, just as I was about to sit down and charge through the second half of the book, I saw the word "Bloomsbury" on the back cover. I opened the novella with different eyes, and, this time, within twenty pages I was thinking very happily of To the Lighthouse. Cheerful Weather is a younger cousin of Woolf's masterpiece, exhibiting an appealing family resemblance beneath is own character. You no more complain that it "isn't as good" as To the Lighthouse than you wish to do away with the pretty little niece of the girl you're in love with.

But Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, although mordantly smile-inducing in places, is not a funny book. For it to be funny, you would have to be able to laugh at the two characters whom, instead, it asks you to care about, Dolly Thatcham, who is the bride, and Joseph Patten, who is not the groom. It might be funny, in another book, that the bride has been drinking. But Strachey doesn't play the situation for laughs.

The whole toilet was carried out as a performing elephant might make its toilet sitting up in a circus ring, — languidly, clumsily, as though her arms were made of iron.

Dolly is self-medicating, with mildly incapacitating consequences. If she were really drunk, she could pass out on her bed and miss her wedding altogether — but that would not suit her. She is marrying into the Diplomatic Corps, a bluff, presentable man whom she does not love. When we learn at the end that she carries another, much heavier secret, she becomes almost tragic.

As for Joseph, he is one of those Bloomsbury men who are all at sea, who, while brilliant academics, don't, where women are concerned, know how to do anything properly. On the day of the wedding — a gustily sunny morning in March — he doesn't know what he feels for Dolly, beyond a vaguely quixotic urge to prevent a marriage that is unlikely to be happy. At the end of the book, daringly late in the narrative, Joseph remembers a day from the previous summer, when he and Dolly lagged along the sea front behind the rest of their dinner party, strolling toward the cinema.

The air felt hot on their faces, and smelt strongly of syringa or heliotrope or something of the sort. Joseph and Dolly dropped behind the others. And finally lost them altogether ... Anyway the point was he had felt he loved her, and, though he said nothing, he knew that she knew this very well. She loved him too.

And yet it hadn't been love, but some depressing kind of swindle after all, it seemed.

Mind Reading for Lovers, in other words: the titanically mendacious romanticism of unexpressed, telepathized love. But Joseph isn't funny, either.

A horrible feeling of depression seemed to rise up from inside him somewhere. It crept along every nerve, and kept growing deeper and deeper, like a strong physical nausea. His stomach began to turn into lead; in fact all his inside seemed to be congesting, and suffocating him with this strange, cold, heavy, physical gloom.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is in fact an anti-comedy in the deep sense: at the end, feelings and purposes are out of harmony, and there is no sense of the generation of new life (whether quite literal, in the prospect of children that rises over a happy couple as they ride off on to their honeymoon, or more figurative). The novella is one of misspent emotions and spilled seed.

There are readers who will laugh at the mother of the bride, who at one point obliges the company to admire a peculiar lampshade that a neighbor has made from scratch.

"Now, do you not think this is quite wonderful!," cries Mrs Thatcham, holding the shade out to the Canon, and with the look of agony on her face which always accompanied her expressions of admiration for an object. "A wedding present for Dolly! So nice!" she cried shrilly. Her face was drawn long as a fiddle-stick. ":I really think this is such a nice cheerful pattern she has painted up round the border here! Vine leaves, I suppose .. aren't they?" She was peering with tense anxiety at the leafy border. "Oh no, though! They cannot be vine leaves! For these are heart-shaped ... perhaps they are periwinkle leaves." She put on her pince-nez and devoured the pattern rabidly through them from under knitted eyebrows. "Yes! Why, that is what they must be! — periwinkle leaves — how wonderfully clever!" She withdrew her pince-nez abruptly from her nose.

Everyone gaped at the painted lamp-shade held up in Mrs Thatcham's hand.

There was the sound of a cat's sneeze...

That would be Joseph, who cannot contain his derisive laughter (for the lampshade is of course hideous). Joseph is the sort of young man who, instead of devising a chivalrous plot to protect his lady, falls into rude laughter at the luncheon table. He is even ruder to his hostess at the end, delivering a telling-off that, in another writer's hands, might have been uproarious, or at least hugely satisfying but that isn't at all funny here. Joseph proceeds from picking on Mrs Thatcham's rhetorical habit of claiming not to understand why people can't follow her simple instructions to blasting her with a shattering announcement about Dolly. Why? Because he can't stand the woman. He erupts in a fit of pique. But there is no sense of the world's being righted. We don't cheer. We gasp.

In arguing against the idea of regarding Cheerful Weather for the Wedding as a funny bit of entertainment, I hope to have suggested that it is something else, a rich mosaic of impressions taken from a traditional social event, celebrated by the English gentry between the wars, into which the remains of a self-thwarted, feckless youthful attachment has been very queasily embedded. The experience is felt rather than looked at, and this is what makes it resemble To the Lighthouse. We are asked not to judge but to remember, to cast about in our minds for similarly discomfiting uncertainties — something that we would never do in response to an invitation from Evelyn Waugh. Julia Strachey may see a great deal of ridiculous behavior, but she seems unfamiliar with the idea of ridiculous feelings.

Consider Jimmy Dakin, the ring-bearer and Dolly's seven year-old cousin.

Jimmy's face was round, and brown as a hen's egg. He was a tiny little boy. As for his features, they were so small they could hardly be seen, bunched up together as they were in the middle of his face, like the currants in a penny bun when they all run ito the centre together for some reason. Two velvety-brown eyes were always on the watch above these tiny features, and if the curious glance of another got caught up for an instant in the beam of their penetrating gaze, they would be lowered instantly, leaving the spectator gazing, baffled, at this very demure, reserved, comme il faut brown currant bun.

When Mrs Thatcham offers a box of chocolates to her family, she overlooks little Jimmy, who "cast his eyes down upon the carpet, blushing hotly, and looked with very great concentration at the Turkish arabesques beneath his dangling feet." When the wrong is righted, he effects a jolly air.

"Well, I had to have a laugh to myself about it, I must say!" replied Jimmy, smiling, and feeling for a chocolate. But when everyone had looked away from him again, he bent down his head and softly wiped away a tear from either eye with the lace corner of the tea-cloth beside him.

It's a moment of extraordinary, understated pathos that seems to encapsulate everything inadequate about the philosophy of stiff upper lips — and all without a whisper of "social commentary." I won't be at all surprised if Cheerful Weather for the Wedding becomes an old friend of this old reader. I know that I won't be disappointed by the lack of slapstick. (July 2009)

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