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On this page, on the 1st and the 15th of every month, we give a new perspective on one of our books.
Persephone Book No. 14: Farewell Leicester Square
At the end of Farewell Leicester Square, Alec Berman, an established and succcesful Jewish film-maker, reflects on the breakdown of his marriage: ‘The personal failure of himself and Catherine to live up to an ideal in no way invalidated that ideal ... The ideal world, he thought (in which such marriages were as valid and desirable as any others) did not, of course, exist; if, indeed, it ever would: but it was incumbent upon certain people to behave as if it did ...’ .
The ideal world of which Alec dreams is one in which a ‘mixed’ marriage such has theirs would attract no comment, and in which race, and Jewishness in particular, would no longer be an issue. But this was a long way off, and in 1930s Europe receding fast. Victor Gollancz, who had published Betty Miller’s first three books, was the son of a well-established Anglo-Jewish family, and may have been even more acutely aware of the implications of the rise of fascism in Britain than the author. This could explain his reluctance to publish a book which the young novelist had said was about ‘the social and psychological conflicts of a Jew in the modern world.’
Betty Miller visited the set of Secret Agent in 1934
When Farewell Leicester Square was published in 1941 it was by Robert Hale, not by Gollancz. But it had been completed in 1935. Betty Miller was born in 1910. It is almost beyond belief that such a mature novel should have been written by such a young woman. Not that she lacked what we would now call ‘life experience’: Ireland, Sweden, London by the time she was twelve, followed by a period at boarding school, a year in a French sanatorium, and then, having obtained a diploma in journalism at University College, marriage at 23 and motherhood at 24. Born into a Jewish family and acquainted with the tobacco trade (through her father), and the world of film (through her brother), she could be said to be writing about what she knew. But only up to a point. She goes well beyond her own experience in taking us inside the mind of a teenage boy, and then, just as convincingly, into the same masculine mind twenty years on. Betty Miller was the 25 year-old Jewish wife of a Jewish husband, but could paint with understanding and sensitivity the excitement and the difficulties of a mixed marriage and its final breakdown, seeing it from both sides of a couple more than ten years older than herself.
Farewell Leicester Square has been compared to the picaresque novel in which the young hero journeys from innocence to wisdom, meeting and exposing the weaknesses and vices of society along the way as the young Jew faces the challenges of the modern world. But this is not a linear novel and we are shown only a limited number of stops along the journey, and not all from the viewpoint of the hero.
In terms of worldly success, Alec has already arrived when we first meet him at the glittering London première of his latest film. Only later will we learn where his journey began: secure but uneasy in a Jewish family in Brighton. Throughout the novel, Betty Miller uses the techniques of film: long shots, close-ups, flashbacks, light and shade. Mr and Mrs Berman are almost straight out of central casting: the chicken soup mother, with her unquestioning devotion to her family, ‘she was very short-sighted: perhaps because the radius of her interests was utterly narrowed down to the confines of home’; the shop-keeper father, as a result of whose thrift the ‘home’ is bleak, cold, damp and ‘heterogeneously furnished'. Bargains are secured from sale rooms for their cheapness alone, ‘from an exquisitely carved mahogany music stand (they none of them played any musical instrument) to a huge wine-cooler that partially blocked up, below in the basement, one of the entrances to this teetotal household.’ Betty Miller is mistress of the telling, humorous detail.
It is not, initially, the Jewishness that makes the confines of his family unbearable to Alec, but his need to realise his passion for film. In a brilliant moment of dramatic irony, his racial sensibility is awakened as the first seeds of his future film career are sown. Engineering an encounter with an admired film magnate, and having more or less stalked him out, he catches sight of his two children: 'it was at that precise moment, for the first time, that something new, the sense of racial distinctness, awoke in him... A sudden knowledge of the difference between these two, who could tread with careless assurance a land which in every sense was theirs; and himself, who was destined to live always on the fringe …’. Neither Catherine nor Basil is remarkably good looking: Basil fair with grey eyes, Catherine red haired with an attenuated face. No more is their father. But like his daughter Richard has a lean face, and ‘no sensuousness, no mobility about those nostrils; they were correctly winged; narrow, firm. He was a man of a different race.’ Alec sees himself in Richard’s eyes – blunt head, prominent ears, black rough hair, features, which from that moment on, he will come to dislike in himself, and in other Jews.
But the world of film did not discriminate. Alec’s career is launched. In the first of a number of significant journeys, he leaves Brighton station with a single ticket to London, and a virtual camera in his hand, recording the glass-ribbed spine of the station roof, the light suddenly flooding the carriage. The rhythm of the wheels, the shadow of the engine, the flying smoke – the film sequence is familiar: Betty Miller closes it with a still image, ‘upon a hoarding for Beecham’s Pills, a sign said "London 50 miles."’
The dark spine of the roof of Brighton Station
She sees through Alec’s eyes, he through hers. From the first ‘shots’ of the arrivals at the film showing where ‘shiny patent-leather feet, narrow feminine feet alternately sought the running board’, the reader’s inner eye is made to work. Sometimes the visual detail is purely incidental. As Alec waits outside the Niccols’ house, ‘two small boys sat on the edge of the grass beside a perambulator; over gaunt upraised knees they swapped cigarette cards and argued; while the baby sat upright, sucking its thumb, hair glinting like a nimbus of thistledown in the sunlight.' At others, the picture tells the story. ‘The cuff of a grimy striped shirt protruded from a sleeve that with increasing plumpness had become too short for his arm’: this is what Alec sees when he meets his older brother Sydney after an absence of seventeen years. It is enough. Minor characters, for which Betty Miller has an almost Dickensian talent, are drawn with a minimum of lines, and a cool objectivity. A maid is ‘smart in her uniform, but wearing cheap broken-down shoes’, and later is ‘baggily aproned; her fingers chapped and seamed with black’; the waiter is ‘sallow, incredibly concave within his toil-worn dress-suit’; the colonel bends forward with ‘a civilised crackle of starched linen’; while Alec’s friend, Lew, wears ‘a suit, as it were, subdued, trodden down by the routine of his own personality.’
Clothes speak. They set people apart. Even looking at his own son, Alec sees the clothes: ‘… cream silk shirt; brief knickers; and his slender bony ankles were encased in white socks’, a fashion which he and his brother had viewed with incredulity, derision mixed with envy, ‘immeasurable distance separating such children and themselves’. Alec’s success has paid for the silk shirt, but the distance remains. This frail little boy, whose conception Catherine believed, and maybe Alec hoped, ‘had inextricably and finally mingled temperament and personality and race and family’, cannot sustain or resolve the diverse and contradictory dreams of his parents. The marriage founders finally on little David’s predicament, called ‘a Jew’ at school, in spite of his Aryan features, so troubling to his father, but the union was fragile from the start. Society offered no support, Catherine was not strong enough, and Alec too unyielding.
Betty Miller tightens her focus on the ‘social and psychological problems of the Jew in society’. The Berman marriage is the close-up shot. Catherine, who, with her increasingly sinister brother, had first made Alec aware of his Jewishness, is the ‘trophy wife’. She attracts him, not because she is beautiful, nor does he admire her art, and he hopes that her piano playing will not be too good (his hopes are fulfilled). He sees through her unconventionality and calculates that, lacking roots, her meagre artistic impulse ‘might in time be gently extracted from her system’. He knows that she will be more at home in a double-fronted house, with a large garden and two uniformed maids. And he knows that he can provide that. ‘The girl out of his own past, the girl from Rottingdean, a symbol, unforgotten’, is there for the taking. For that he loves her.
For Catherine, Alec, in his way, is the ‘trophy husband’. Not because of his money, nor because of his success, but because of his Jewishness. He is different and, because of that he is exciting. He has ‘a certain mystery, a concealed power, lacking in the men of her own kind’. She is fascinated by his ‘dark screened eyes: the matt, foreign skin’, ‘his beautiful mouth, firm and suave’. Does she love him? She is tender towards him, because she is ‘able to bring him happiness. He had given her that, rehabilitated her: in a few months, all the unhappy sterile years were forgotten …. She often found herself thinking "It is as though I were at home again".'
Both in their way yearn for home and family. When he first visits her studio, Alec, for the first time in more than ten years, experiences an agonising sense of regret for his mother, for the old life, ‘for the sense of being in a community again; for that protection, that solidarity, that oneness.' But their marriage can never recreate that. Alec can never be the source of ‘the harmony that existed between father and daughter’, a harmony which excluded even the sinister, divisive Basil. Catherine can never give of herself as selflessly as Mrs Berman. They chose a ‘mixed marriage’ for what they thought it could offer: social respectability for him, the thrill of the unconventional for her. But they were looking for the wrong things. Alec’s dream of an ideal world is laudable, and he is right to say that it was ‘incumbent upon certain people to behave as if it did [exist].' They were not the right people.
Betty Miller places the conflicts of the Jew in the modern world within the confines of a marriage. Can we surmise that, in England in 1935, had the story continued, Catherine would opt for a more conventional path, taking the Aryan-featured David with her? Alec, driven by ambition, will set out again on a new professional journey, this time with the backing of his family. The conflicts have been confronted but not resolved.
Betty Miller places the conflicts of the Jew in the modern world within the confines of a marriage. With what, reluctantly, one must call the ‘benefit’ of hindsight, the twenty-first century reader knows, as Betty Miller knew when the novel was published in 1941, the conflicts were about to develop catastrophically, on a scale beyond the scope of the widest angled lens.