The Butterflies of the Province by Honor Tracy (Methuen 28s.) The March Hare by Terence de Vere White (Gollancz 36s.) Love Letters edited by James Turner (Cassell 75s.) Letters from Liselotte edited and translated by Maria Kroll (Gollancz 70s.) HONOR TRACY can always make me laugh. Her forays into the Republic of Ireland made me laugh so much I thought I should have injured myself. Her new novel, The Butterflies of the Province, also made me laugh so much that I forgot my connection— please don't misunderstand me! —and spent half an hour in stitches on a provincial platform. Miss Tracy's province, this time, is Malaga, irradiated to some degree by the ghost of William Beckford, of Ronald Firbank, too. A Malaga of elegant galas and snooping sacristans, of ladies with temperament and gentlemen with secrets, crumbling a little at the edges under the invasion of Corrida-drinking vulgarians. The butterflies, need I say, are more or less human and British.
I won't give the plot away. It involves disasters provoked by a refined person who tries to rehabilitate an unspeakably vile one. We have all tried our hand at this game sometime or other. The consequences are possibly worse for our friends than for us. But I may say that a. ghastly bore "who never read novels and was proud of the fact" comes to a bad end as the butterflies glitter through the skies. And one character exclaims; "Ferns? Mother of God I don't buy
ferns!" To which another retorts: "By what means, then, do you obtain them?"—This is the truly manic note. Any novel with dialogue like this has got to be got.
Terence de Vera White writes a less dazzling sort of comedy. In the opening chapters of The March Hare, a story of Dublin life, he seems positively grave as he displays decayed gentility at the turn of the century. A little Dickensian, a little JaneAustenian, a trace ponderous, a shade slow.
Yet the pace suits the theme of conventionality, of bigotry, prejudice and preoccupation with social position and the efforts of the younger generation to free themselves from an ingrown provincialism.
The really serious-minded might detect parallels between the Dublin of yesteryear and the Belfast of today. But this is not a crusading novel. It doesn't make you boil or spit. When the heroine goes to lunch with her young man and his aunts, and the venture founders on the twin-rocks of the Mass and Anglican Matins, the lustre goes out of the day. It doesn't make you laugh, tbut it makes you think.
At one point a character remarks, apropos the heroine's upbringing in Holland: "I've heard about foreign convents. I believe things go on in them that are not fit to ,publish in the papers." There are other sayings as pregnant and lapidary: the observations of .another age worn smooth and polished by constant malevolent usage. And the further you read. the further you want to go.
So much for he novels. Now for the stuff of which novels are made: two volumes of raw material.
A thousand years of British Love Letters is a famous idea. But the editor has misled us. An Anglo-Saxon poefit apart, there, is no letter in the collection written earlier than 1469. Even so, these five centuries of passion, while interesting, cloy. A few letters of hatred and repudiation would not have come amiss. For every ten My dearest Angel. one Vilest Wretch would have improved the mixture. Aren't letters of vituperation often love letters in disguise?
For sentimental souls, however, the book will be full of charms. For my own part, I liked the letters of the Hanoverian princes as well as any. And the Thompson-Bywaters exchanges best of all—for historic rather than romantic reasons. And in general, I think an opportunity has been missed by over-emphasis on the literate and the literary.
Of the thousands of love letters I censored during the war, written with pencil-stubs by soldiers laboriously to their wives and sweethearts, one series always began : "My dearest, darling wifie Nell," and used to end : "0 when I gets home, the first thing will be get up them stairs." I rather sighed for a leavening of GUTS and SWELP among the souls and hearts and amorous ardours of 'the eighteenth century.
There is too the remarkable illiterate love letter, found by Christopher Logue on the beach rut Littlehampton. It is truly affecting and memorable. Alas, I have forgotten what it says, but
certainly have been included.
For a passionless novelist. the Love Letters would serve as a useful mine. But the letters of Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orleans, covering the period 1672-1722, really are a historical novel in themselves. The Princess was a tireless correspondent, extraordinarily open-minded and straight-speaking, uninhibited in her likes and dislikes, stationed at the centre of European power, yet not involved, a woman of equable temper and penetrating eye. She was Louis XIV's sister-in-law, and for long stretches of time the first lady of France. She was not amorous, fortunately for her, having been married to a foolish and effeminate prince who spent all her money on young men. Yet she loved and honoured him to the last.
The Princess was herself in line of succession for the throne of England. She was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Stewart, the 'Winter-Queen' of Bohemia. She knew the exiled James II well, pitying his misfortunes (which indeed improved her own chances), his stutter and his excessive piety. "The day before yesterday, he spent so long kneeling and praying that he fainted clean away, and he was unconscious for so long that everyone thought his last hour had come."
Brought up a Protestant, though formally converted, she quite liked William III, whom in her youth she might have married. Her favourite aunt, had she not died two months before Queen Anne, would have succeeded her as queen.
Her letters, so fascinating and entertaining in themselves, have been extremely well selected, translated, annotated and illustrated. The introduction is a model of its kind. The genealogical table of France is a muddle, alas, and there ought to be a complementary one for the later Stewarts to demonstrate the Princess's kinship with them. Everything else however is excellent, and I felt really sorry when I reached the last letter Liselotte penned.