Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)
The book’s subtitle, ‘A Gothic Novel’, is a hint, I suppose, that the reader should expect more in the way of furious and excessive emotion than credibility. And on those terms, the book certainly delivers.
It describes an aristocratic family who live in a huge and rambling country-house in Kent (like Knole, perhaps, the home of the Sackville family) . There are four siblings – Nigel, Ariadne, Helen and Denzil, whose relationships with each other are fierce, tortured and bordering on the incestuous. The mother is ineffective, and the father locks himself away in his own wing of the house all day, playing eighteenth-century opera scores to himself on the piano.
The seething emotions of the house are brought to a crisis by the visit of two outsiders.
First, Denzil, the youngest son, brings home Marcus, a friend from Oxford. There are strong hints that this friendship has sexual overtones: Denzil watches Marcus’s hands touch a jewelled box:
Then the hand moved and the fingers were laid lightly on the gilt chasing. The whole movement was replete with an animal grace and cunning that captivated Denzil. He seemed to feel those finger-tips upon his own face. (55)
Marcus has a desire to dominate that is almost pathological, and is described in over-heated prose:
To command the admiration, physical and mental, of others, had early become an obsession with him [….] And so, when that ancient power stepped in and filled him with an unholy life and the cruel desire of domination was quick in him, there was no more any turning back, and he yielded himself in a sort of trembling ecstasy to this suicide of the soul.(89)
It is a weakness of the novel that this powerful character, having been set up, does not actually do very much more than stare at people, in a way that makes their resistance crumble. Marcus’s dark power creates deep stirrings in each of the four siblings. Helen at first hates him (because he has taken Denzil away from her) but he overcomes her resistance, and when Denzil, spying from a secret room, sees the pair of them kissing, this precipitates a crisis in him, since he has powerful though incoherent feelings for both his sister and Marcus.
Another outsider is invited to stay: Antonia seems more of an innocent, but she sets her sights on Nigel. When he falls for her his sister Ariadne (who is ferocious and ruthless, and identifies with Richard Strauss’s Electra) precipitates the book’s crisis by telling Antonia that she too has been as close to Nigel as Antonia has, implying that the relationship is indeed incestuous. Whether this is true or not is left to the reader’s imagination.
The book is regularly enlivened by set-pieces of description. A memorable scene of kite-flying at night, and a game of hide-and-seek with dramatic consequences, for example. There is a terrific passage, rather in the manner of Virginia Woolf, of an invalid staring at his medicine bottles until the sight becomes meaningless:
All impression of colour vanished, and there was left only a dull black mass with glittering outlines – a sort of evil electric life, a symbol of illness. Little spots and points of light fled across his darkness from time to time, and even what seemed like twisted shreds of silk and fine seaweed, swimming and diving as if in the depths of the sea.
The author of Sackville-West’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes:
The Ruin, like all the gothic literary efforts over which Sackville-West took infinite but rather pointless pains, was heavily laced with the mannered style of the late nineteenth-century ‘decadent’ movement epitomized by Huysmans, with whose work Eddy had unfortunately become enamoured when he was seventeen.
He has a point, but the writing is sometimes remarkable, and Sackville-West seems to me a better writer than he is a novelist. All the characters speak with the same voice; they are labelled but not individualised. And Sackville-West shows no interest in the questions that most born novelists would ask – such as where their money comes from. Is this huge household (full of anonymous servants) financed by land or investments?
At the end of the book, there are the dates of composition:
In 1923 the book had apparently been considered unpublishable because some of the characters were too closely based on real individuals. According to the ODNB, Marcus was Jack McDougal, an undergraduate at New College and later Evelyn Waugh’s publisher at Chapman and Hall, with whom Sackville-West had had an affair. Edward Sackville-West himself is Denzil, the youngest and most vulnerable of the siblings. Presumably the 1925 revision made the resemblances less obvious.
It is an odd book, and not really a successful novel, but I kept reading, to see how it would all be resolved, and often enjoyed its incidental pleasures.