Thursday, 8 November 2012

A Bit of Blue Stone

Bournemouth, the Square and Gardens from Mount Dore
EM Haslehust, 1915. Wikimedia Commons
A bit of a milestone; further to the previous two posts, I just finished Maxwell Gray's final published work, the title story of her 1923 collection A Bit of Blue Stone.

The story A Bit of Blue Stone (dated 1922) is set largely in Bournemouth in the closing years of World War One, a romance between two people whose lives have been blighted by the war.

In a warm September, Lancelot Hughes, a young serviceman on leave from the front, largely recovered from a wound and shell-shock, is visiting Bournemouth to see his mother herself convalescent from overwork as a VAD nurse, and his more seriously traumatised brother George, permanently discharged after the loss of an eye and severe shell-shock. Lancelot and his mother's conversations turn to an idyllic time they remember, a family outing to Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, where Lancelot was attracted to a girl called Violet Kendal who they'd helped when she dislocated her ankle.

To Lancelot's surprise and pleasure, he encounters the now older Violet, who is staying with her Aunt Maria and cousin Rose. The two families become acquainted, and conversation turns to George, whose doctor considers to have a delusion of being jilted due to his disfigurement. Rose reacts strangely to this - evidently she did he a friendship with George - and the receipt of a letter reveals the truth: that George's jealous officer In France, a failed suitor of Rose, had withheld the correspondence between the two. Rose and George are reunited. Lancelot and Violet also find themselves in love; but Lancelot has to return to the front, and leaves with Violet his "mascot", a chunk of blue stone given him by another soldier whose life he saved, for safe keeping.

Lancelot eventually returns to Bournemouth a year after the end of the war, but after initial delight at being reunited, it appears increasingly that his feelings toward Violet have cooled. This turns out not to be the case; the problem is that Violet's father, Colonel Kendal, has forbidden their marriage due to Lancelot's circumstances. His medical history - shell-shock and "heart strain" - is limiting his job prospects, and coupled with a general decline in family fortunes (including the need to help George and Rose) his only option is a job overseas, which is bound to be detrimental to his health. Regretfully, he says marriage is not an option.

After Lancelot leaves, Violet becomes curious about the "mascot" Lancelot still has left with her. It's wrapped in a sheet of paper saying "Try Sparkes" (a London jeweller) and as she's in the process of helping Mrs Hughes sell some jewellery to bankroll Lancelot's travel overseas to his job, she suggests to him that it might be an asset worth selling. He agrees. Rose goes to the Charing Cross shop, and rapidly finds that the "bit of blue stone" is a large uncut diamond from the Kimberley mines, and an American customer at Sparkes, Josiah P Goldridge, is prepared to buy it for thousands of pounds.

This alters everything. Lancelot needn't go overseas. He can afford to complete his interrupted Oxford studies and have enough left over to provide a starting income; Colonel Kendal retracts his objections. Violet and Lancelot meet again in Bournemouth, and sail off into the sunset, presumably to the Isle of Wight. Mrs Hughes, watching them depart, says, "They are going to the Land of Heart's Desire."

View Larger Map - Bournemouth front as described by MG: pan left and zoom for the
Isle of Wight (in distance), pan right for Purbeck Hills.

To some extent, A Bit of Blue Stone is predictable. The blue stone's titular presence makes it pretty certain to have some plot significance, which ultimately amounted to a deus ex machina that bailed the main characters out of all their problems. But it is a very nice evocation of the landscape of Bournemouth, with its chines and its views of Purbeck and the Isle of Wight, in a distinctive era when it was a significant centre for wartime convalescence: see, for instance, Bournemouth Town Hall (formerly the Mont Dore Hotel). It's also rather nice to see an upbeat ending to Maxwell Gray's works, which toward toward the end of her life had become at best wistful, and at worst embittered and reactionary.

Check out the 1915 Blackie guide Bournemouth, Poole & Christchurch (Sidney Heath, illust. EM Haslehust, Internet Archive ID bournemouthpoole00heatrich) for a nice illustrated account of Bournemouth at the time of A Bit of Blue Stone.

I don't know if MG had visited Bournemouth at the time - as an invalid, she well could have. But it's well possible she could have consulted the Ward Locke guide A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch, Avon Valley, Salisbury, Winchester and The New Forest Covering the Years 1914/15. It's not online, but I was interested to recover a snippet suggesting it to be a popular location for authors at the time, many of the titles suggesting that (like pre-war Brighton in Brighton Rock) that it had a considerably seamy side:
... Tess of the D'Urbervilles contains one of the most picturesque and accurate descriptions of Bournemouth. It is perhaps most fully depicted in Adrian Savage by Lucas Malet, and is visited and described in Allward by E.S. Stevens, Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie, The Seamy Side by Besant and Rice, Jill-all-Alone by Rita, and in Tracked Down by Headon Hill. It is further seen in W. B. Maxwell's war-time romance A Man and his Lesson. Among other recent novels in which Bournemouth appears are: The Race Before Us, Guy Thorne; Zitta Sees Herself (Boscombe), E. M. Delafield; The Sins Ye Do, Emmeline Morrison; A Bit of Blue Stone, Maxwell Gray; Tyranny, Holloway Horn; Ring Up the Curtain, J.C. Nevill; Barbara Justice, Diana Patrick; Blinkers, H.A. Vachell; Mr. Justice Maxell, Edgar Wallace.
For me, it's not the end of the Maxwell Gray story. I've finished the planned task of reading her major book works chronologically. But she was not just a novelist; there are many more articles and poems in magazines and journals. The project continues...


1 comment:

  1. The Great War was certainly a watershed for England. I have been wanting to ask you what you thought of The Ghost Road (Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road) by Pat Barker. There are so many aspects of the trilogy that are interesting but one is certainly comparison to literature that was actually written at the time, e.g. Maxwell Gray's.