Wednesday 11 May 2011


One of the novellas I read during Novella Reading Weekend was Echo (1931) by Violet Trefusis (translated from French by Sian Miles) and I thought it was rather brilliant. If I hadn't read Paul Gallico's exceptionally good Love of Seven Dolls at the same time, I'd probably have dashed off an enthused review of Echo right away. As it is, prepare yourself for some enthusiasm now. (I should add, I've since read Broderie Anglaise - I'll probably write a blog post on it at some point, but I was severely disappointed - it was nowhere near as good as Echo.)

I had a little stack of unread Violet Trefusis novellas (they do all seem to be short - Echo is 109pp.) on my shelf, mostly because I recognised her name from Virginia Woolf's diaries and various Bloomsbury books. I hadn't quite worked out where she fitted into everything (turns out she had a youthful affair with Vita Sackville-West, as you do) but the combined allure of Bloomsbury and brevity was enough for her to find her way to my shelves. And, eventually, to my hands - I'm very glad she did, because Echo is very funny, as well as well written and occasionally quite moving. Oh, and it has twins in it. That's what sealed the deal.

As people seem to in novels of the period, the central characters live in a Scottish castle. To give you an image of its state, this describes the bedrooms: 'They were all equally high-ceilinged, equally pale, equally damp, and entirely devoid of comfort or charm.' The castle houses Lady Balquidder and her twin niece and nephew, Jean and Malcolm - Lady Balquidder is proper and restrained, always behaving exactly as polite society expects of her, and receiving her due from society in return. Here she is:
Her plump hands were covered with freckles which matched the colour of her hair, still auburn, despite her sixty-five years. From time to time, the ale-coloured eyes, beneath their reddened lids, darted a glance at the door. Her whole person flickered like a small but constant flame.

Jean and Malcolm are not built in the same mould as their aunt. They are hardy, rough, and unmannered youths - in their early 20s - whose behaviour is closer to savages than to Lady B's. That is to say, they greatly prefer nature to the confines of rooms ('each of the twins had a passionate love of their wild homeland and were constantly entranced by its beauty'), and possess no frailties nor qualms which generally afflict those of their supposed class. Jean, especially, is proud of not being unduly feminine - and is devoted to her twin brother.

Into the mix of this maelstrom comes another of Lady Balquidder's nieces, the twins' cousin, Sauge, from Paris.
"Yes," agreed Jean, "I can't wait to see her teetering about the moors in Louis Quinze heels. She'll want to have snails every mealtime - when she's not eating frogs, that is. She'll have a little corncrakey voice, and she'll keep saying 'Ah mon Dieu!' all the time. And, of course, she'll be fat and dumpy, like her mother; you know, there's a photo of her on Aunt Agnes' desk."

"Well we can certainly make her life a misery," proclaimed Malcolm with relish.

Needless to say, Sauge is not in the least like this. Trefusis dashes us away from Scotland to Paris, and we get to glimpse Sauge first-hand:
Her searching curiosity was by now proverbial and she was strong and capable enough to act as a prop to someone who really interested her, as a trellis to the young tendrils of a plant slow to develop.

But whenever the eternally grateful 'subject' showed signs of wanting to stabilize a relationship regarded always by Sauge as temporary, she would quietly slip away, fearful lest a human heart bring her down from the Olympian heights of her disinterestedness.

The arrival of Sauge triggers off all manner of change at the castle, of course. Initially the twins treat her with the rudeness they intend - but Sauge's unusual, beguiling nature begins to work its effect over the family. This is no Cinderella tale, or even a novel with the enchantment of The Enchanted April - Sauge brings tragedy alongside comedy; and I should reiterate, Echo remains very amusing throughout - Trefusis' turn of phrase is a delight. But it is not unmitigated...

Through no fault of her own, Sauge is the catalyst for a change in Jean and Malcolm's interaction with one another, as both become, in their clumsy ways, besotted with their cousin. Behind Jean's refusal to be thought feminine lies a painful naivety; behind Malcolm's bravado lies inexperience and immaturity. Running beneath the amusing encounter of the civilised and uncivilised is a much more dramatic, tautly told narrative of a crisis point in a relationship - albeit one between siblings. The early 20s can be an incredibly difficult time to be a twin, and Trefusis paints so perfectly the unspoken struggle that must take place when one is ready to loosen the close bond before the other. Trefusis moves from comic to farce to moving with brio - and all in just over a hundred pages.

Echo starts like a Saki short story, all dark mischief and childish menace, but develops and maintains the fablesque tragedy of the Brothers Grimm, alongside flashes of the vibrant, vulnerable 1920s heroine. It's a heady, brilliant mixture - and, of course, a further addition to the pantheon of twin-lit.

Books to get Stuck into:

The Juniper Tree - Barbara Comyns: the same weaving of fable and pathos appears in this lesser-read Comyns novel

'The End of the Party'
- Graham Greene: I haven't written about this twin-based short story, but it is a perfect little accompanient, and can be read online if you click the link.


  1. Another one for the Melbourne library! (to explain further going to Melbourne on Sunday and to untold riches re the books!)

  2. I thought that Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and her Daughter was a very readable introduction to Violet Trefusis' rather sad life. I can think of better mothers to have!

  3. Another novella, and author, that I have never heard of util this review... must you keep doing this to me Simon?

    It sounds excellent I love the idea or dark and menacing becoming fable like. Maybe one to add to the never ending and always growing wishlist!

  4. This is all new to me and sounds wonderful but I do wish I hadn't read about the consumption of snails and frogs so soon after breakfast.

  5. Twin lit, hm? That's an interesting niche for you. :) No really, it sounds charming. I like a good novella; there are times that call for one precisely, aren't there?

    And sorry to be off-topic but I wanted to throw my A.A. Milne post up here, because several of your readers seemed excited at the mention the other day. :) Thanks for letting me put it up here! Have a good one.

  6. Now that sounds wonderful. And hurrah for the Cornish library service having a copy stashed in the fiction reserve!

  7. Never heard of this one, but I do love the colors of the cover. :)


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