Winter and Some Discontent




Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell (Rupert Hart Davis)

It was a brave move by Kathleen Farrell (1912-1999) to position her first novel (published in 1951) over those few portentous days known as the Festive season. Such a particular setting doesn't bode well for a long life on the shelves, the literary equivalent of a good melody marooned on a Christmas record. Her book employs the classic country house setting of an Agatha Christie, where a group of perfectly disagreeable people assemble under one roof. In Farrell's case, all could murder each other, but don't, they merely scratch, bicker, and add to the overall misery of their daily lives, supposedly in the name of celebrating Christ's birthday.

In her late thirties by the time the book was written, she was no innocent abroad on the edge of a literary adventure. Farrell had worked during the Second World War as an assistant to Hastings Lees-Smith, MP, Secretary General of the Labour Party, whom she accompanied to annotate his late night conferences with Churchill in his bunker. After the war she set up the successful literary agency Gilbert Wright, but having private means, earning a living was never a major priority to her. The knowingness she reveals of human nature is unflinching, and although amusing, doesn't elicit guffaws, but draws nervous outbursts from the unwanted recognition of several unsavory truths. If you tend to suspect that all families are by nature dysfunctional, their motives as individuals fairly selfish, then Farrell is a novelist who speaks for you, beyond her times and the season entwined in the title of her debut effort. She was never a best-seller.

None of her five novels, produced over a period of a decade, made it into paperback. Her almost surgical observations certainly ruffled the feathers of post-war conformity. Sometimes the truth is too bitter a pill for mass consumption. When a company wrote to her about republication in the 1980s, when there was a vogue for rediscovering women novelists, she never opened the letter. It only came to light when a friend was helping her sort her papers towards the end of her life, by which time the publisher had long ceased to operate. Farrell expressed a mere flicker of regret over this casually overlooked opportunity.

Mistletoe Malice wasn't her chosen title; it was imposed on her by the publishers, and her original is now lost knowledge. The heart of the book focuses on Rachel, the alert but utterly self centered matriach, slavishly attended with scant thanks by Bess, an ineffectual goose of a woman, hopelessly in love with the handsome Piers, who is only in love with himself. Add to this melting pot of tensions the arrival of Rachel's daughter Marion, an inflexible buttress of conformity and routine; her ineffectual but kind husband, Thomas; and from Italy, Adrian, her alcoholic and financially embarrassed and embarrassing sibling. Finally, there are the on-looker Kate, who meddles, and a bad-tempered cook who harbors many servile resentments. These groupings usually happen at weddings or funerals, but Farrell throws them together in a seasonal potpourri. Tinsel and talons bared, she details their vendettas, tarnished needs, and thwarted ambitions, all except Adrian, who remains sloshed, a comedic giggler at their proceedings. Though saying nothing of his emotional life, the implication from the color of his suit and the absence of a significant other is that he is homosexual. All this creates a dryly funny but deeply unhappy Christmas. It could, however, happen at any time, and still does.

Despite a critically enthusiastic reception, Farrell's work slid out of print, though she remained a recognized talent. Forty years after her final book's publication, Farrell was the subject of appreciative obituaries in many newspapers, including the Times, the Guardian, and the Independent, remembered as much as a friend of writers -- Muriel Spark, Francis King, Ivy Compton Burnett, Stevie Smith and Angus Wilson -- as for her own creations. This would have delighted her, but the books do merit a much closer look.

Kathleen Farrell was a petite, charming woman whose politeness concealed a steeliness of soul. Discussing The Shelf, the 1977 novel by her lifetime friend and sometime lover Kay Dick (1915-2001), she observed with caustic delicacy that it had been "excellently edited" by Francis King, since there were "sentences with verbs in them and proper punctuation." She also remarked to the novelist Sebastian Beaumont, whilst awaiting her first vodka of the day, that her medication stated "DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL, but I find that they go rather well together!"

Farrell's work would complement the present as a witty confections from a more elegant time. Her books are rare, both in their quality and scarcity, whilst her writing, perhaps too arch for many, is a sublime, precise, and acquired taste. Any of them bring the reward of a refined intelligence, but her appropriation of Christmas as means of mirroring the tensions all must endure, should and could be enjoyed in any day of the year.