Monday, 27 August 2012

A Mad Mother and a 'Well Hidden' Family

Queen Victoria was on the throne of England when William Peacock married Miranda Mirova. The couple are very young, barely out of childhood, but he is the precociously talented editor of a literary magazine and she is the most famous ballet dancer of generation. All goes well until baby Clare is born, when Miranda no longer wishes to dance, and develops an aversion to noise and crowds. As she becomes more and more isolated her behaviour becomes more and more strange. “We are not well hidden,” she tells her husband. She hears 'them' following her (though who 'they' are we never discover) and wanders the house at night to check all is safe.

Two other children, Hector and Viola, and William moves his family from London to the 'deserted decrepitude' of Prince's Acre, where Miranda is happy for a time. But there is a terrifying night when, because 'we are not well hidden', she takes the children outside and tries to cram Viola into a rabbit hole. After this Miranda is taken away and dies. William withdraws into himself and rarely leaves his study, so Clare, aided by faithful housekeeper Mrs Humble cares for her brother and sister, who are both disabled. Eventually, however, visitors from the outside world penetrate the family's enclosed life, and events take a tragic turn.

That's an over simplification of Rumour of Heaven, written by actress Beatrix Lehmann (the sister of novelist Rosamond) in 1934. It is, apparently, considered to be something of a curiosity rather than a great literary work, but I really enjoyed it, although it's a bit like the curate's egg – good in parts. But let us rejoin the family when Clare is 17, devoting her life to the well-being of her emotionally shattered father; Hector, who is what we would now call a person with learning difficulties; and Viola, who suffers from an unspecified debilitating disease.

Her own peace of mind is broken when she meets charismatic Max Ralston, who has written a book about a mysterious island paradise which may really exist, or may be a figment of his imagination. Then there is troubled Paul Millard, on the run from a failing marriage, fashionable Bohemian London, and his memories of WWI. He hopes to write a biography of his friend Roger, a poet, who once visited Prince's Acre. But he finds the real Roger slips away as he tries to record his own memories and talk to others about the Roger they knew.

Clare and her family seem to find reality just as hard to pin down: their house is like something in a fairy tale, dusty, overgrown, something out of time, yet perfect as it is, despite its faults. The two younger children live in a world of their own, unable to grasp the realities of everyday life, while Clare and her father seem to live in a dream, and you feel you could wake them, if only you could reach out and shake them.

Over it all lies the ghost of poor, mad Miranda (is one still allowed to call people mad I wonder, or is it politically incorrect, even when referring to a character in a novel written before the term was coined) whose presence can still be felt, although she is there for such a short time. Under the rafters of the barn is a 'ghost of a room' for Clare, where old ballet-shoes, made for feet half the size of her own, dangle on frayed ribbons.

The trunks in the corner had been dusted, and one, made of wicker, displayed the name 'Mirova' on its bursting side; and all were open and their maws foamed with overflowing treasures. Yellowed ruffles of tarlatan that time and repeated packing had not quelled. Miranda's ballet frocks sprang upwards like frosted cabbage leaves when the lid of the trunk had been lifted.

There are music scores, photographs, and books – gifts from long ago admirers – all ravaged by moths and mice, mementos of a make-believe world played out in the spotlight, but now hidden in the dark. But Miranda leaves a less tangible legacy, for her husband and children are still hidden away 'safe, all safe', unable to move forward and leave the world she created. And the emotional impact of her illness on those she loved is incalculable.

Her death is glossed over , so much so that I kept thinking she was still alive, incarcerated in an institution, and would re-appear at some stage, fully restored to her old self, but, of course, she never does. The cause of her condition is never explained. Is it a form of post-natal depression? Or is she bi-polar? Or schizophrenic? But her strange behaviour is described so touchingly, and quite sensitively, so I could feel her fear and desolation. Indeed, the relationships between the Peacock family were very tenderly portrayed.

I found Max and Paul less sympathetic, while Mrs Humble and the various rural yokels never came to life at all: they were caricatures, straight out of one of those pastoral novels that were once so popular (Mary Webb perhaps). And they speak in dialect, which is always difficult to handle well, although this may be done for comic effect.

Beatrix Lehmann as a young woman.
In fact nature has a role to play here, with weather and landscape echoing plot and feelings, and there are some excellent descriptive passages describing the sea and the scenery. However, there are other passages which are much more overblown (Mary Webb again I fear – I only mention her because Simon T at Stuck in Book recently wrote the most scathing and funny review of 'Gone to Earth'). And there are times when the plot itself seems akin to something Webb might have written – then, as it gets back on track, you start to wonder if it's parody, like 'Cold Comfort Farm', but somehow I don't think it is.

The tone of the novel is variable, and there are all sorts of themes to be unpicked, but overall, I think 'Rumour of Heaven' reads like a fairy tale, with a brief 'once upon a time' period when things are happy (or at least different), followed by a section that is part Cinderella, part Sleeping Beauty. But there is no real awakening for the Peacocks who survive tragedy, although there is a happy ending of sorts, even if you feel it is somewhat unreal.


  1. How fascinating. I am a great admirer of Rosamund Lehmann, and did vaguely know that Beatrix, who you can still see in many old movies, had also written. I see that this was published by Virago so am tempted to get hold of it. Thanks.

    1. It was a bit patchy, but I really enjoyed it. I had to rescue it from my mother when I was half-way through because she remembered queuing films that Beatrix Lehmann was in!