Carnival by Compton Mackenzie (1912)

Review by Margaret B:

This is the story of Jenny Pearl, starting with her birth in respectable working-class/ lower middle-class Islington.

Jenny, daughter of a feckless father but a strong, strict and loving mother sets her heart on training as a ballet dancer but, due to her lack of application once at ballet school, she ends up in the chorus at Piccadilly’s Orient Palace of Varieties. There she meets the upper-middle-class would-be artist Maurice Avery, and they begin a passionate but ultimately unconsummated relationship.

When Maurice goes abroad, and Jenny fails to join him, the relationship collapses. Jenny returns home to find her mother has lost her mind and has to be committed to a mental hospital. When her mother dies, Jenny discovers that her mother’s mental illness was probably caused by her belief that Jenny had slept with Maurice. Consumed with guilt, Jenny accepts the next proposal of marriage she has from a Cornish farmer, Zachary Trewellha. This rapidly leads to the melodramatic and tragic conclusion of the story

While I found the ending ultimately unsatisfactory and over-melodramatic, I enjoyed the rest of this novel. The powerful descriptions of turn of the century London, especially the theatre world, create a rich and vibrant setting for most of the story. The details of Jenny’s life and work are fascinating and gave me a real insight into what life was like in 1912. Jenny is convincing as both a child and a young woman coming of age, confronting sexual politics and the role of women. Mackenzie was brought up in the London Theatre and he manages vividly to recreate that world for his readers.

The story of Jenny’s life is used to illustrate some major social and moral themes.

Puritanical religion tops and tails the book and Jenny’s life. In the second chapter we are introduced to the very religious great aunts who wish to adopt Jenny. This is a very funny scene and it is clear that the author has no sympathy with these women.

“They were happy in the exclusiveness of their religion not from any conscious want of charity, but from the exaltation aroused by the privilege of divine intimacy and the joyful sense of being favourites in heavenly places.” (page 11).

There are echoes of Sleeping Beauty in this scene. At the end of the novel, the religious fundamentalism that Jenny once more encounters in Trewllha, is much darker and there is none of the light comic touch of the early chapters.

“You witch,” He cried. “How have ‘ee the heart to make me so mad? But I deserve it. Oh God Almighty, I deserve it. I that went a-whoring away from my own country… I took a bride from the Moabites,” he moaned. “I forsook Thy paths, O Lord and went lusting after the heathen.”  (Page 424).

It is tragically ironic that Jenny is saved from the clutches of her hypercritical aunts at the beginning of her life only, to end up in the clutches of the far more fanatical, religiously obsessed man.

The most important theme of the book is sexual morality and particularly the question of whether women should have sex before marriage. This is quite openly discussed which is quite surprising for a book published in 1912 and written by a young man. Jenny is determined not to have sex before marriage or get trapped as her sister did. In fact until she meets Maurice she is determined not to fall in love with any man.

Although Jenny is dismissive of the suffragette movement, this is in many ways a feminist book; the author is very disparaging of men, of marriage for women and the state of women’s education. Very few men come out of the book well, neither Jenny’s father, Maurice or the dreadful Trewllha come out well – all selfish men who undermine the female characters.

This was a very popular book when it was first published and is still a good read. From a 21st Century view-point it now appears very old-fashioned in the issues it is dealing with but it does provide a fascinating insight into English Society emerging from the Victorian era and the dilemmas facing young women just prior to the first World War.

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