The Opportunity of a Lifetime

Emma Smith wrote this excellent tale of 1937 Cornwall in the late 1970s, insightful words that whisked me away to that simpler time and place for a few hours. The narrator, Nora, is a fifteen-year-old on a seaside holiday with her older sister Cynthia and her neurotic parents, only a few miles from their home. Two elderly sisters heard of their predicament of not having anywhere to go for the holiday and offered up their tea cottage, the Rose Cafe, for the two weeks. While there, the parents scheme to buy the land and develop a hotel on the spot. Nora meets a 15-year-old boy, Terry, who’s run away from reform school, and is living in a tent while stealing food. There’s the ancestral brooch that Cynthia steals from her mother, the boredom she feels towards the men who swarm her, the devious Peter Miller who is managing the other swanky hotel, the Willis family whose paterfamilias lectures Nora about schools not teaching the right thing. The story is framed from the perspective of 35 years later, triggered by the receipt of a letter from her childhood maid, Beatrice, that includes a clipping of one of the Willis children. Once the tale is told, Nora as middle-aged woman ventures back to live by the sea, near Beatrice, again.

The Far Cry

Just when I was about to give up hope of enjoying another Persephone title, I sank into Emma Smith’s The Far Cry. I’ve not enjoyed several of the last of the grey covers read and even tossed away a few without reading past the first pages. Smith’s book comes like a lightning bolt, sudden and unexpected, thrilling, magnificent.

Published in 1949, it’s in 5 parts: Departure, The Boat, India, Ruth, and Teresa. We start in England, the comic picture of a sixty-year-old man rushing into the house of his sister in a flummoxed frenzy to yank his fourteen-year-old daughter out of school and escape with her to India to prevent her mother from recapturing her. Aunt May puts Mr. Digby (her brother) in his place firmly, “of course you’re being absurd. Of course Lilian [his ex wife] isn’t chasing after you. Look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t believe me… You’re an old man, you might as well admit it, and a shabby old man too, you silly fellow, and with no money to speak of. Lilian must have six times as much money as you, or more.”

With that, Digby and Teresa are on the boat to India, which is a delightful section, dreamy and in-between, as Teresa herself is in-between worlds/existences. Digby reveals himself to be an ass, saying things like a woman with a brain is poison, “a woman ought to be beautiful and she ought to be sympathetic. That’s quite enough. I’ve always found that quite enough in a woman. Anything more is too much.” Digby finds a quiet tea planter, Mr Littleton that he attaches himself to for the duration of the journey. Teresa cultivates a friendship with an old spinster, Miss Spooner, who nurses her through heatstroke and gives her a hat:

“But dully she regretted the loss of Miss Spooner, who, Teresa having no further need of her, had withdrawn, as it were, one step. They saw each other now and again, as sharing a cabin they were bound to do, in the mornings and going to bed at night, but contact between them, other than mere politeness, seemed to have been broken. Miss Spooner was not by any means cold: she was detached. Nor was she impersonal She would not, however, extend her personality. She was like a flourishing little island set aside from the main trade routes and perfectly satisfied that no ships should call. Why should she wish them to call? they could only be a nuisance. On her island was all she wanted. Mr. Digby, bucketing by at a great distance, had mistaken this small kingdom for nothing more fertile than rock and gravel. Teresa, canoeing closer through delirium, had seen the vegetation there and suspected hidden orchids.”

The two sleep outside on the deck one night, foreshadowing another night in Calcutta they sleep outside a template after watching festival celebrations because curfew doesn’t allow travel between 10p and 4a. Once the boat lands in India, Teresa is transfixed, taken aback by the swirl of colors, dust, people, begging, oddities. After a few days in Bombay, the four of them end up on the same train to Calcutta. After the magical night of Kali Puja, Teresa thinks of Miss Spooner again:

“She was thinking, as she watched, of Miss Spooner, thinking of her, as she always did, in the form of questions, wondering what sort of education she had had in her odd fifty or sixty years to make her so courageous now. For it seemed to her an act of courage in an old English lady to sleep on the wet grass outside an Indian monastery… She asked herself if it was possible for her to be equally brave at Miss Spooner’s age, equally calm and decided, and what one had to do now to reach that state of emancipation from the fear of evil. For she had thought—she had looked at her father and thought—that one weakened as one grew older, one grew more and more afraid, one’s courage went as the years increased. But it might, she saw, be otherwise.”

They finally arrive at Teresa’s half-sister, Ruth,’s house. Ruth is a doozy, having cultivated a perfect outer shell with nothing inside. Her husband feels that she is wasted tucked away in their off-the-beaten-path bungalow, but he’s a tea planter and he likes the jungle. “There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors, for every person she met was her looking-glass in front of which she arranged herself, blind to everything but her own image reflected in faces that were, on their own account, of no interest to her whatsoever.”

The drama amps up, Ruth had fled her home in tears when she heard her father was arriving, but Edwin, her husband, fetched her back when they showed up. Teresa falls in love with India, sees market day, has picnics along the river, climbs a mountain and never wants to leave. Mr Digby dies from a heart attack when changing a flat tire on his way to visit Mr Littleton. Ruth decides to take Teresa back to England, gets stuck in Calcutta where she finds she is pregnant, telegrams Edwin to come get her, is hit by a taxi and dies. Edwin finds Teresa being entertained by Miss Spooner (still in Calcutta), asks her what she wants to do and Teresa says she wants to go back into the jungle with him, taking Miss Spooner with them. Happily ever after with a few deaths thrown in willy-nilly at the end!