HE DISTANT LANDS A Novel of the Antebellum South By Julian Green Translated from the French Barbara Beaumont;Marion Boyars/Rizzoli. 902 pp. $24.95
I ALWAYS ENJOY the kind of novel that opens with the poor orphan girl's arrival at the house of wealthy relatives, where she has to be kitted out in someone else's cast-off clothes; but it must be said at once that Elizabeth Escridge is a most exasperating heroine, continually stamping her foot and asserting that she is a brave English girl. It is fortunate that she is so stunningly beautiful and golden-haired, or how could her cousins endure her disagreeable ways and her total self-absorption?
The year is 1850, the place Savannah, Ga., and Elizabeth and her mother have just come, stony-broke, from England. The pace of this novel is so wonderfully leisurely that we do not in fact learn until page 621 precisely what happened in England to send the ladies overseas; and it is not until page 807 that Elizabeth loses her virginity; but never mind, there they are, settling into the great plantation house, Dimwood, all Spanish moss and live-oaks. There's also a sinister grove, the Wood of the Damned, haunted by ghosts of Seminole and Creek Indians, massacred in earlier centuries, an equally alligator-infested river, and a mysterious little circular, windowless room with a skylight made from alabaster, which no one ever remains in for more than a few minutes.
People at Dimwood are frequently given to saying things like, "Never ask me that, child!" or "Certain things are not mentioned in this house." Indeed, the whole place creaks with mystery. What happened to Cousin Laura? Who is the mysterious lady, swathed in white, who appears from time to time, riding round the property, escorted by wicked Jonathan Armstrong, rightful owner of Dimwood, whose father Harold frittered away a fortune and was obliged to sell out to the Hargroves? Why does Uncle William Hargrove go into a tremor every time he lays eyes on Elizabeth, "his little English violet"? Why is Elizabeth's mother called Mrs. Escridge when she was married to Sir Cyril, so presumably ought to be Lady Escridge? Why do people keep taking other people away to their bedrooms in a meaningful and confidential way, and then not divulging anything in particular, but merely issuing vague warnings, such as "You will be careful, won't you? Do you understand me?" To which the answer is invariably, "Yes . . . no." Or: "Shall I tell you who made me so unhappy?" To which the answer is simply, "No."
People suddenly embark on long explanations of family feuds: Aunt Maisie had a terrible row with Aunt Amelia, over the household accounts, and the two sisters have not entered each other's houses from that day to this; one is, from time to time, irresistibly reminded of Jane Austen's "long and minute detail of past adventures and sufferings in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth; and conversations which had passed twenty years before be minutely repeated."
We are told that American-born Julian Green, who is a writer immensely respected both in England and in France (where he lives, and has been elected a member of the Academie Francaise) began this monumental ante-bellum novel back in the '30s. Then he apparently learned that Margaret Mitchell was undertaking something of the same kind, so abandoned his manuscript for 50 years. One can't help wondering whether also, possibly, he came across a copy of Stella Gibbon's classic Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and wondered if its satire on the gothic cut just a little too close to what he was producing. One would dearly like to know whether he had completed the entire 902-page oeuvre when he put it away, or whether he broke off in the middle, but left an outline of how he intended the story to continue.
At any rate, no visible join can be detected; the story proceeds smoothly on its apparently meandering, inconsequential (but highly readable) course. Immense meals are eaten, always off snowy-white cloths laden with shining silver; mint juleps are drunk; much of the family conversation is taken up with the possibility of war (still 10 years ahead however); and the English poor relations are often warned always to be civil to the slaves, for we don't want a revolt.
Exasperating Elizabeth falls in love with wicked Jonathan, after one glimpse of him through a magnolia-screened verandah. And other people fall in love with her. Fred does. Billy does. Daniel does. Uncle Will lusts after her. Ted does. Ned does. As Aunt Charlotte remarks, in a pensive tone: "Life . . . It's a good job there is laudanum to help us put up with it." Lots of ladies take laudanum in The Distant Lands, and Miss Charlotte distils her own, in the washroom, from the very best ingredients.
People are always warning Elizabeth. Old Souligou, the West Indian seamstress, has premonitions, and tells her fortune on Tarot cards, concealing the Hanged Man. Miss Llewellyn, the sinister Welsh housekeeper, shows her how to perform a magic rite with a scroll of paper and a lock of hair, which will bring her heart's desire but death in its wake.
It is impossible not to make fun of this book, and impossible not to admire it also. What an opus! Imagine launching out on those nine hundred and two pages. (Gone With the Wind has 1,037, but then Gone With the Wind included the Civil War, while The Distant Lands stops 10 years short of it.) WHAT THIS novel can marvelously evoke for the reader is the excruciating, intolerable boredom and misery of adolescence. Elizabeth Escridge may not be a likeable heroine, but by golly she will strike a chord in the heart of all as she scribbles letters alternately to both her loves (most of which will not get posted, but some, unfortunately, will) and snaps at poor old black Betty and is rude to Uncle Charlie. She is a young cousin of Emma Bovary. Perhaps it was this endemic boredom, this chronic languor in the South (also most marvelously and nostalgically called up) that finally catapulted the region into the War between the States? Because no one could endure the monotony another day, and war was preferable to endless inertia with a mint julep and a palm leaf fan?
Julian Green conveys all this at the start with a gluey relish. "Suddenly the indescribable was everywhere, consuming the air . . . Finding oneself on the edge of a precipice would not have been as hard as this. An eternity of damnation was setting itself where time had flowed freely an instant earlier."
I have a feeling that, in the earlier version, the writer had stopped short of the conclusion, and that when he did finish the book, it was in a different, and considerably more ironic frame of mind. There is a wonderfully funny conversation between Ned and his father, in which Papa advises Ned not to let his wife experience sexual pleasure.
" 'It's preferable for it to be that way with women,' Charlie Jones continued gravely. 'Otherwise there is a danger of them turning into . . . mmm . . . nymphomaniacs . . .'
" 'But that's monstrous, Papa. What do these wretches do?' "
" 'They write novels.' " (My italics)
This strikes me as a different, and more tongue-in-cheek voice, than that at the start of the book. And the conclusion, when it comes, is quite startlingly sudden, with a duel in the Wood of the Damned (we are now back in Georgia), two deaths, and Elizabeth left alone to mourn in her Savannah mansion, and to bring up little Charles-Edward who bears an unfortunate likeness to the wrong one of the two duellists.
And we never do discover precisely what happened to poor Aunt Laura's quadroon daughter. But at least she will inherit Dimwood and its malign housekeeper.
This is the sort of novel that, in the happy old days, would have been gloriously serialized in women's weekly magazines in 119 parts. Maybe it still will. Anyway I am sure it will give a great deal of pleasure to anybody prepared to undertake it.
The novel was written in French and translated by Barbara Beamount, who does a good job, but sometimes falls into present-day idiom such as "Uncle Douglas was keeping his cool."
Joan Aiken is the author of many novels, including "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" and the recent "Jane Fairfax."