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Inclinations is a strange little tale about the charming Mabel Collins, who bewitches Miss Geraldine O’Brookomore, the noted biographer and aesthete. With Mrs Collins’s agreement they are to go to Greece.
“I shall be leaving town now in about a week.”
“Are you to be alone?”
“I shall have a maid – and a little Miss Collins, who is not yet fifteen.”
Mrs Asp began to purr.
I’ve only read a couple of Ronald Firbank novels before, but I knew what to expect. The narration and dialogue are uber-camp and doubly entendred, laced with delicious little bon mots that can be unexpectedly raunchy, especially in the mouths of genteel ladies. There is very little plot, and the story is drenched with dialogue and epigrammatic descriptions. Firbank’s style is very like that of Ivy Compton Burnett, who began writing shortly after his novels became known: you have to look hard in the dialogue for a key noun or verb to find out who is speaking, or what the conversation is about. But where her novels are often (usually) about cruelty and persecution, Firbank’s (so far in my experience) are about gleeful, mannered leisure. ‘Elliptical’ is one way of describing his writing style, ‘baroque’ is another. Here’s another sample:
“I noticed nothing until yesterday.”
“And what did you notice then?”
“There’s more than one trap set for Miss Collins.”
“My gentleman’s after her too.”
“Oh, my poor strained nerves!”
“I suppose the bride’s a bore.”
“Of course she’s neurasthenic and excitable and highly tuned. This morning, for instance, she sat and stormed at me because her white tennis shoes weren’t white enough.”
“Most young married women are ashamed of anything pale … The Honourable Hester Dish on her wedding tour wore black all the time.”
Who knows how many speakers are in there? It’s just possible to work out that these are the ladies’ maids on an outing (to the Acropolis, as it happens: the novel is mostly set in Athens), but they are just as arch as their employers, and discreetly, anonymously numerous.
In Athens Mabel meets and bewitches (again) Count Pastorelli. The ladies lounge in the hotel and go out on excursions with a group of similarly inclined ladies, until one of them is shot dead. Yes, dead. The characters are more concerned with what to wear at the funeral than who did it. Mabel then elopes, leaving an ill-expressed note of explanation for the distraught Gerald(ine), and reappears two years later at her parents’ house, with her tiny daughter Bianca. And that’s about it.
The charm of the novel is in untangling the story, and enjoying the bizarre nuances and heavily-rouged hints (his style is infectious). When I read Valmouth, Firbank’s most famous novel, I was bemused and delighted. This one I’m not so sure about, because it is so slight. But I think I am persuaded to graciously approve this long overdue reprinting of Inclinations by the far-sighted bibliophile-reprint publisher Michael Walmer, based in Adelaide, because anything first published in 1916 that does not contain a word or thought about the First World War has got to be interesting. I also cannot resist the audacity of the style, the unending non sequiturs, and the explosions of epigrams. Firbank is like Oscar Wilde on speed. I am also intrigued by the delicate little touches that suggests that Firbank was a Janeite. Was Miss Collins a relative of THE Collins family? She has a certain hoydenish eagerness to gobble her pleasures and take what she wants that reminded me of Miss Lydia Bennet ( a cousin of the original Collins), and her farewell note is very like Lydia’s own semi-literate adolescent effusion of glee. Inclinations is a joy: do buy it.
Ronald Firbank, Inclinations (1916), (Michael Walmer Publishing, 2014), ISBN 978-0-9924220-1-1
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