‘Beneath the Visiting Moon’ is the story of the fatherless Fontayne family, who live in a sleepy English town, in a sprawling family home that has seen better days. Marcus Fontayne’s widow Elisabeth, is very poor and long gone are the glorious heydays of cultural life at the family home Fontayne, when Fontayne was described as the ‘Mount Olympus’ of culture, and the gifted Marcus Fontayne very much at the helm of things, encouraging the development of new ideas and artistic endeavours. After Marcus’ death, the family home is in decline, the family live in genteel poverty and the bills that arrive in the post every day, induce Elisabeth to escape into her garden for temporary reprieve. Selling the family home seems an inevitability.
Quite unexpectedly, she falls in love with a musician, Julian Jones, a widower himself with two older children, Bronwyn and Peter. The two unlikely families are forced to cohabit at Fontayne, and learn to adapt themselves to becoming a conjoined family.
This is the story of a spring and summer in their lives, a summer tinged with the highs and lows of first love for Sarah. A summer full of listlessness and inaction for others, whilst everyday the newspapers yielded frightening and threatening prophecies of upcoming war.
Moreover, it is the story of the disappearance of a way of life, that dissolved when the Second World War started. It is the story of the dissolution of the grand old English aristocracy, with their sprawling houses, green gardens and glorious, carefree, champagne filled life.
‘Beneath the Visiting Moon’ introduces us to a large and unusual family – the Fontaynes. They consist of Elisabeth Fontayne, Marcus Fontayne’s widow, Sarah their eldest daughter, on the cusp of adulthood; Christopher, perennially away at boarding school and soon to be sent to Oxford, Philly his twin sister and young Tom, who lives a carefree existence, eating nursery lunches and suppers with Mrs Moody, the family seamstress, who has a lively tongue and gives unsolicited advice about the love affairs of the young girls. There are a few other people who oblige the Fontayne family with their services – a housekeeper, Mrs Rudge – the occasional charwoman, the inscrutable, loyal figure of the butler, who reportedly hasn’t been paid for years – all the old retainers powering together to keep up the appearance, traditions and daily rituals of the English country house. Alas, the family home is hopelessly dilapidated and money is dwindling. Elisabeth Fontayne is endlessly worried about the multitude of unpaid bills coming in and seeks refuge in the beauty of her garden and arrangement of flowers about the ancestral home.
“Elisabeth had a faint misgiving that there was something in the air as well as the insistent flower perfume. It wasn’t the world news, because she hadn’t looked at the papers this morning, and yesterday’s horrors had been quelled by sleep. Yesterday’s dismay were screened by the white lilies in white bud below the terrace.”
The eldest daughter Sarah is a hopeless romantic and spends her days day dreaming but even she realises that the family home needs to be sold. She falls hopelessly in love with a very charismatic much older man, Sir Giles Merrick, a member of the House of Commons, who gives beautiful young Sarah, a little bit of attention. His interest in Sarah, her father, the beautiful old house of Fontayne and her unusual family, is romanticised by Sarah to a great extent. Her days pass in anticipation of a letter from him and when later Sarah takes up a job in London it is with him, that Sarah yearns to spend time.
Philly (short for Philadelphia – Marcus Fontayne having embarked on a tour of America in his time), the younger sister, has a secret dread for men and inwardly hopes never to get married. She is hence horrified when she becomes the young muse of an avant garde artist in the village. Mr Lupin bullies her into sitting for her portrait drawing. Her encounters with Mr Lupin and her dread of his interest in her, are extremely funny and emphasize the fact that Cavan has a strong sense of humour. In fact, her strange and macabre characters and quirky humour were something that reminded me of ‘I Capture the Castle’ and ‘Guard Your Daughters’ and certainly explores in the same vein, large dysfunctional families.
Philly’s twin brother Christopher, spends much of his time away at boarding school and becomes fascinated by an outgoing and fashionable young woman called Virginia Welwyn who promises to take him flying one day. He meets her at the same time his sister Sarah meets Sir Giles at an Easter Ball. And last of all is young Tom with his attachment to Mrs Moody and his love for riding his bicycle.
One of the earliest, most dramatic events in the book comes with the discovery that Elisabeth Fontayne has fallen in love with Mr Jones and is expected to marry him shortly. Sarah expects that Mr Jones will bolster their flagging income in future (something that doesn’t happen) and the reader does derive the impression that Mr Jones provides Elisabeth with a sense of mental security (if not financial security) from the threats of impendingwar and instability. The Jones’ – merge into the fabric of everyday life in Fontayne but there are lots of adjustments and adaptations made by family members. Mr Jones brings his two children Bronwyn and Peter into the fold of the family at Fontayne. Bronwyn is a young opinionated writer, and Peter is a suave youth, very much trying to cast himself in the mould of a man about town.
Sarah, the eldest child is overcome with a desire to escape to London and earn her own living, in order to prove herself to the rest of her family. Part of the motivation is also to meet Sir Giles Merrick, whom she is hopelessly infatuated with. The anguish and torment of first love, Sarah’s obsession with Merrick and the rather one-sided correspondence between them, form a major plot point of the novel.
The descriptions of the unusual and slightly dysfunctional family members are an interesting part of ‘Beneath the Visiting Moon’. However, the grand old country house of Fontayne is a formidable character in itself. Descriptions of the many rooms, the beautiful and carefully tended garden, the dusty attics with unknown treasures and the once opulent but now decaying gilt ballroom are wonderful to read about.
I really loved the first few chapters that were set during Spring and Easter, especially because I quite serendipitously picked up the book at Easter time myself.
” Good Friday was the smell of hot-cross-buns and the aura of an almost pious tranquillity over the gardens and the contrast of the girls still busy with their sewing. Tom had an enormous chocolate Easter egg. The others said he was broody over it; he fondled it but wouldn’t dream of eating it.”
When the book slipped into the summer, the abundance of fruit and flowers in the garden, the planning of a grand ball to celebrate Sarah’s eighteenth birthday, especially during the last summer before the dreaded war, seemed like a glorious last hurrah for the beauty of the old English country house. In places one couldn’t help but marvel in the beauty of Cavan’ descriptive writing.
“The summer had its second wind. The roses, temporarily dispirited by the July rain, were now born again; and in rebirth were fuller, finer, more confident than before. From the upper windows of the house, the distant blotch of colour seemed freely mixed with Chinese white. Elisabeth loved these pale chalky tints that could be so opulent as well as delicate… Upfront the rose garden, this side of the posturing yes, tall shaggy hollyhocks made a bright little wilderness, with shadows lying in long lines like pilings overthrown. The wisteria bloomed again, hanging in great bunched drops in the formation of clustered grapes; opening in a minute intricacy of lapping petals, expanding and deepening in colour, and then slowly retracting, turning pale,meeting death halfway.”
The book title ‘Beneath the Visiting Moon’ is a nod the Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. After Anthony has died, all the joy from Cleopatra’s life has disappeared. She finds life extremely dull and ordinary and hence comments:
“The soldier’s pole is fallen: young boys and girls
Are level now with men: the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.”
A marvellous tribute to bygone days, whilst ‘Beneath the Visiting Moon’ commemorates the old aristocratic way of life, it also enables us to acknowledge and appreciate that this time was one of most earth shifting change, when class structures where destroyed, cities were ruined, lives were lost, rules changed and an evening out of society was enabled.
This book review is written for the #1940club where readers choose titles published in 1940 and post reviews on social media. Many thanks to Simon and Karen for picking such an interesting year. A year where most writings had to acknowledge in some form or other, the outbreak of war, but when the outcome of war was unknown and therefore, unquestionably disturbing.