This week, I’ve been working on Stevie Smith’s last novel: The Holiday.
Smith’s very attracted to the idea of the holiday. Everyday reality could be draining. A friend remembered, ‘She was always exhausted, forcing herself to stay erect when she would have liked to lie down.’
So her characters go away, or fantasise about going away.
…I find that it is more than I can bear, so give me some bromide
And then I will go away for a long time and hide
Somewhere on the seashore…
You beastly child, I wish you had miscarried.
You beastly husband, I wish I had never married.
You hear the north wind riding fast past the window? He calls me.
Do you suppose I shall stay when I can go so easily?
But going away doesn’t always go as planned. Pompey in Over the Frontier tries to go right away – becoming a soldier, and riding over the frontier – only to end the novel locked in a tiny room, awaiting her fate.
It’s the same in The Holiday. Celia goes away, to visit her Uncle Heber, but finds she’s still trapped. She can only talk and cry and argue: she can’t find peace.
Until the end.
There’s a stormy row – one of many. Things descend into violence: one character flees, another chases after him. And then, on the last page…
When Caz came back we spread the blankets on the hearthrug and lay down together.
God bless you, Celia, said our uncle, and you too Caz, and my son Tom, God bless him.
God bless us all, sir, said Caz, and took my hand in his.
Amen, I said, and fell asleep.
There’s so much to say about this amazing, unsettling ending. But it reminded me keenly of one of the Grimms Fairy Tales (which Stevie loved).
Here it is: ‘Children of Famine’.
There once lived a woman who fell into such deep poverty with her two daughters that they didn’t even have a crust of bread to put in their mouths. Finally they were so famished that the mother was beside herself with despair and said to the older child: “I will have to kill you so that I’ll have something to eat.”
The daughter replied, “Oh no, dearest mother, spare me. I’ll go out and see to it that I can get something to eat without having to beg for it.”
And so she went out, returned, and brought with her a small piece of bread that they all ate, but it did little to ease the pangs of hunger.
And so the mother said to her other daughter, “Now it’s your turn.”
But she replied, “Oh no, dearest mother, spare me. I’ll go out and get something to eat without anyone noticing it.”
And so she went out, returned, and brought with her two small pieces of bread. They all ate them, but it was too little to ease their pangs of hunger. After a few hours, the mother said to them once again: “You will have to die, otherwise we’ll all perish.”
The girls replied, “Dearest mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until the day of judgement.” And so they lay down and slept so soundly that no one could awaken them. The mother left, and not a soul knows where she is.
They go to sleep. They opt out. The most successful, disturbing sleight-of-hand imaginable.