I have had a good run with Persephone Books this year having read Every Eye by Isobel English and Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – both excellent. Now, after finishing the wonderful Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (for #NovNov), it feels like I have scored a Persephone hat-trick.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a funny and beautifully written novella focusing on a dysfunctional, miscellaneous group of people thrown together, and sizzles with acerbic observations and dramatic revelations. It was originally published by Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
The book is set during the course of a single day at the centre of which is the wedding of our protagonist, 23-year old Dolly Thatcham. The wedding is set to take place in a church close to the Thatcham estate in the country.
When the book opens, the guests have begun to assemble at the Thatcham residence and all the last minute preparations are in full swing. We are told that following a short engagement of about a month, Dolly is to be betrothed to Owen Bigham, who is eight years elder to her. Post the wedding, the couple plans to relocate to South America.
Meanwhile, the reader is introduced to an eccentric cast of characters comprising Mrs Thatcham, her other daughter Kitty, the various maids and a few ill-assorted guests. Mrs Thatcham immediately comes across as a woman indifferent to her surroundings, a tad muddled, seemingly out of touch with reality. She insists that the weather is fine for the wedding, when it is actually a cold, gray day in March with a strong wind blowing. Her maids are at the receiving end of her behaviour – for instance, Mrs Thatcham gives them a precise set of instructions, promptly forgets what she had discussed, and then berates her maids later even though they have followed her orders to the tee. “I simply fail to understand it,” is a refrain she frequently utters.
“Oh! But then Millman must have laid the snack-luncheon in here!” she exclaimed.
There was a silence. Mrs Thatcham stared frigidly at the cutlets and sandwiches.
“How disappointing of Millman!” she said. “She is an odd being, really. So funny of her to do that now! When I told her most particularly the nursery…as we shall want the library kept free…so very odd of her!”
“Not odd at all, Mum. Considering I heard you tell her most particularly yesterday, at tea-time, to be sure and put the cold lunch in the library so as not to have to light a fire in the nursery today.”
We are also introduced to Joseph, likely Dolly’s former beau, who still holds a torch for her. He is hoping to meet her before the wedding with vague intentions of stopping it but with no clear idea of the repercussions. Mrs Thatcham dislikes Joseph, eyeing him as a harbinger of doom.
As both Joseph and Dolly briefly hark back to the past at separate moments, we are given an inkling of the romance that could have possibly blossomed between the two, but which does not come to fruition at that time.
One of the striking features of this novella is that there is so much scope for the reader to read between the lines. Almost all of the characters don’t really reveal what’s exactly on their minds, preferring instead to drop subtle hints. Even in their conversations, the haziness of their feelings persist. All of which leaves a lot of room for us to figure it out ourselves.
There had been a discussion about a certain kind of crackly biscuit made with treacle, and looking like stiff brown lace, called a “jumbly.” “What, never tasted jumbly!” Joseph beside her (Dolly) had said, quite suddenly, peering in underneath her large summer hat. “But you must taste a jumbly! You would adore them!” but the point was, that through his face, and most especially his eyes, Joseph’s whole being had announced, plainly, and with a violent fervor, not “You would adore them,” but “I adore you.”
Dolly’s personality is inherently passive, as she seems okay to just go along with the flow rather than be assertive and take charge. Even though she harbours feelings for Joseph, she chooses not to be forthright about them. And yet she is assailed with doubts on her wedding day, made obvious by the half a bottle of rum she guzzles hours before the ceremony, rendering her slightly drunk.
On top of it all, Dolly’s relationship with her mother is quite strained because of the latter’s detached personality, and even on her wedding day Dolly feels no warmth towards her mother.
Will Dolly, eventually, go through with her decision to marry a man she barely knows? Or will Joseph spoil the wedding party with some tricks up his sleeve?
Julia Strachey’s writing in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is marvelous, brimming with evocative descriptions – whether it’s the heavily furnished rooms in the house, or the tumult of the characters’ emotions.
Above the writing table where Dolly sat was an ancient mirror.
This mirror was rusted over with tiny specks by the hundred, and also the quicksilver at the back had become blackened in the course of ages, so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside. And a strange effect was produced:
It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in this mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence.
There are generous doses of sly humour in the book, with some hilarious set-pieces particularly in the first few pages when the wedding guests mingle with one another, and Joseph especially makes it a point to rile Kitty (Dolly’s younger sister).
“How are your lectures going?” asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face. This was her style of the moment with the male sex.
“Very well, thank you,” said Joseph, and added: “We heard about the practices of the Minoan Islanders upon reaching the age of puberty at the last one.” He started snapping up his cutlet.
“Oh, really? How terribly interesting!” said Kitty.
“Yes, very. Like to hear about them?” offered Joseph.
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding feels sophisticated and assured as Strachey displays a flair for making nuanced observations on her varied set of characters. A distinct highlight is the novella’s razor sharp focus on the consequences of suppressed emotions and things left unsaid. It’s another gem from Persephone Books well worth reading and re-reading.