Book Review by Sylvia D. Reading Group members may remember the delightful poem by Phoebe Fenwick Gaye that was circulated to us a little while ago. It was called ‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’. Chris has acquired two novels by Fenwick Gaye for the Collection and over the summer I have read one called Vivandière.
Vivandière was published in January 1929 by Martin Secker. It was favourably reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard and became very popular, so much so that it was on its third reprint by March 1929. The book in the Collection is a March 1929 reprint and has a delightful jacket. I’ve struggled to find out much about Fenwick Gaye. There doesn’t seem to be a Wikipedia entry and I haven’t been able to access the Dictionary of National Biography to see whether that contains an entry or not. Fenwick Gaye was born in 1905 and this is her first novel. She was still writing popular fiction in the 1940s and seems to have been widely read during the thirties and forties but as she says in her poem which dates from 1937
‘To hell with the Book of the Month club;
And my serial rights in Cathay –
I wanna be known as a Highbrow
And I don’t care what Hutchinson’s say!’
She never did become recognised as a ‘highbrow’, and is virtually unknown today.
Vivandiere is a romance set in the Napoleonic Wars. Fenwick Gaye got the idea after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball in a costume of the period and she returned to the Napoleonic Wars for another novel, The French Prisoner, which appeared in 1944 and is set in England.
Sixteen year old Julie was one of a number of children with different fathers born to a vivandière (a purveyor of supplies to the French army) who has spent all her life living among the train of people who used to attach themselves to European armies. She came into the world
‘to the sound of a salvo of guns; she was weaned at three weeks and put on the bottle. Only it wasn’t milk in the bottle, it was brandy! He father was a marquis, but the only powder she’s ever had on her hair is gunpowder. She could walk at nine months, talk at a year, and had a remarkable vocabulary of bad language before she was three’ – (p 272).
As the novel opens Julie, with her trusty mule Rousseau, has left her family and is starting up on her own selling wine, spirits, bread and coffee to the soldiers of the regiment she has attached herself to. Through her eyes the reader follows the fortunes of Napoleon’s Grande Armée which set off in 1812 on its ill-fated invasion of Russia.
Having undertaken a considerable amount of research Fenwick Gaye paints a dramatic picture of the army’s initial high spirits, the rapid advance through Poland, the disastrous crossing of the river Nieman when many horses and wagons were stuck in the mud and engulfed by rising waters, the sacking of Smolensk and the triumphant arrival in Moscow, a triumph that quickly turned to bewilderment when the city was found to be virtually deserted. With the Russian Emperor refusing to negotiate, with dwindling supplies and with no opponent to fight, Napoleon finally accepts that his Grande Armée will have to retreat, a retreat that begins just as winter arrives. The story of the resulting disaster as his soldiers, despondent and harried by the Russians, gradually froze or starved to death is well-known but Fenwick Gaye brings her own imagination to play to good effect:
Now began the sixteen-hour nights, and the wan days that took so long to be born, that died prematurely. The clouds went, too, leaving a bare, leaden sky above a bare, leaden plain. The bright uniforms of the soldiers and their glittering plunder were only mockery. They would be swallowed up in the vast, never-ending icy spaces. As milestones along the road, just as regularly the horses fell. Horse-meat was the only meat left, and nothing was wasted of them’ – (p 234).
During the campaign Julie falls in love with a young officer, Gervais de St Siriac. Their encounters weave in and out through the book but their’s is a romance that can flourish when the army is under canvas but is impossible of fulfillment given Gervais’s high-class background. Fenwick Gaye neatly resolves this dilemma in the final pages.
This is an ambitious book which Fenwick Gaye doesn’t quite succeed in pulling off. Bennett, in his review, says ‘It may be immature: it is sometimes. But it has originality, form, coherence, and sustained imaginative power’’ (from the back of the jacket). It certainly feels rather naïve in places and the writing is often very flowery. Some of the episodes seem unnecessary. There is a melodramatic moment, for instance, when Julie sets on fire the home of a beautiful Russian woman Gervais has turned his affections to. The narrative seems to gain nothing by this. I agree with Bennett that it is a very imaginative story which is a good read if you are interested in this tragic moment in history and enjoy a touch of doomed romance.