When The House in Dormer Forest by Mary Webb came up as May’s TBR Lucky Dip book, I was pleased for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s a Virago Modern Classic, which meant I could add another one to the ‘Read’ shelf on LibraryThing and not feel quite so bad about the large number still sitting glumly on the ‘To Read’ shelf. Secondly, it’s one of the novels parodied by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm which I’ve been wanting to read for ages, and this provides me with the perfect excuse now that I have the requisite background reading. The very fact that Mary Webb’s book was the subject of parody should have been sufficient warning for me about what I was letting myself in for, but I wasn’t prepared for a book quite as amusingly terrible as The House in Dormer Forest turned out to be.
The House in Dormer Forest follows the fortunes of the Darke family and their servants who live and work in Dormer Old House. It’s difficult for me to summarise the plot so long after reading the book, but I’ve copied the blurb from the back of the book in my initial post concerning the novel. Suffice to say that it is dark and oppressive and Stella Gibbons can’t have had much work to do in producing a parody, as the writing is so incredibly overwrought it almost feels like a pastiche to begin with.
Occasionally (very occasionally), her writing is intentionally amusing as Webb reveals her characters to the reader:
“I can’t be thwarted!” grandmother suddenly broke out. She had a theory that, if crossed, she would die. She was fond of saying: “I’ve got a weak ‘eart, Rachel!” –dropping her “h” not because she could not aspirate it, but because she did not see why, at her age, any letter of the alphabet should be her master.
I think this perfectly encapsulates grandmother Darke’s (the obvious counterpart of Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm) tyrannical desire to control everything and the manipulation ways in which she does so.
Sometimes, the language is wild and beautiful, if rather over dramatic:
Dormer, in its cup at the bases of the hills, was always full of damp air and the sound of water. Besieged by this grievous music — and what is there in nature sadder than the lament of falling water? — she felt as if she had opened the door not to the night and the stream, but on to a future full of doubt and dread, veiled in mist.
Yes, it’s a little bit much, but it’s suitably atmospheric and I think it’s quite effective. I’m partial to the odd Victorian sensation novel so I am more than willing to forgive melodrama under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, the majority of the time, the language tends towards being florid to the point of being ridiculous:
Who would ever seek in Amber Darke, so still, of so sad-coloured an exterior, the creature of fire and tears that could feed a man’s heart with faery food and call him into Paradise with songs wild as those of hawks on the untrodden snow-fields?
I appreciate that Webb is trying to emphasise how plain Amber is compared to other more attractive, lively women and therefore unlikely to attract her ideal husband, but really, Mary, is this necessary? Faery food? Hawks? Untrodden fields (which seems an odd place for the hawks to be on; I would have assumed they were in the air as birds of prey hopping along the ground are really quite comedic and not at all wild and romantic as I think Webb is trying to suggest). Jane Eyre has exactly the same thoughts about being plain and therefore unlikely to attract attention, but Bronte manages to express them without recourse to overblown similes about hawks and fairies, in a way which makes the reader sympathise with Jane rather than giggle at her. Sadly for Amber, I found her impossible to relate to because her inner life is so ridiculous and extravagant rather than believeable.
The best example of this overwrought style comes when Jasper has gone to a track known ominously (everything in this novel happens ominously) as ‘the Beast Walk’ to think about things:
To climb this path harrowed his soul, made is face even at ten years look quite wizened. But now, in his young manhood, the dark spell was infinitely stronger. He drank here of a charm thick as black honey made from purple poison flowers by bees in hell.
Intellectually I know that this is supposed to show Jasper brooding and generally being consumed by dark thoughts; in reality I was too busy pondering why there are bees and flowers in hell, if the bees have committed some terrible sin and are therefore condemned to an eternity of making black honey and what this might be supposed to taste like. Who on earth imagines a hell which features bees and flowers? On the whole, I have to conclude that metaphors generally work best if the thing to which you are comparing something else actually exists or at the very least makes sense to your readers. This is just ridiculous.
I can forgive ridiculous writing if a book has something else to recommend it (as in the case of early gothic novels which I also rather enjoy). However, the plot of The House in Dormer Forest is one of sheer, unrelenting doom in which no one is ever happy and everyone goes on about it at length. The atmosphere is suffocatingly dark and claustrophobic, and while this may have been the desired effect I think it needed to be accompanied by better writing so that the reader could at least have had something to enjoy in the novel. The only grim humour comes in the form of Sarah, a servant who visits retribution on those who displease her by deliberately breaking their china ornaments and gluing the shards together to form a globe.
As always, my views are entirely subjective and it could be that I’ve missed the point of Webb’s novel entirely. Search for this book on Amazon UK and you will find the same effusive 5 star review posted no less than twenty-two times, which makes me somewhat dubious about it, but this review from a website featuing the Midlands in literature provides an interesting counterpoint to my own opinions which is much more praise-filled. The general consensus seems to be that this was by no means Webb’s best novel, so I will continue to read the rest of her books and see if I enjoy those more than I did The House in Dormer Forest.
The House in Dormer Forest by Mary Webb. Published by Virago, 1983, pp. 292. Originally published in 1920.