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The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflows (1956)

by Rebecca West

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Cousin Rosamund Trilogy (1)

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The Fountain Overflows is possibly one of Rebecca West’s most famous works – the first novel in a projected trilogy – the third of the trilogy not quite finished when Rebecca West died. The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund complete the trilogy and both these novels were published posthumously, – and while I am not keen on unfinished works – I do now very much want to read them both.

The story is that of an Edwardian family in the years before the First World War. Our narrator is Rose, one of three sisters, there is also a younger much adored brother Richard Quinn. As the novel opens the family have recently returned to Britain from South Africa, where we get the impression that things didn’t quite work out – the children’s father Piers Aubrey had run into difficulties. Now the children and their mother are to spend a few weeks on a farm in Scotland, having given notice on their flat in Edinburgh – they intend to follow Mr Aubrey to London as he starts a new job on a newspaper. There is a certain amount of anxiety about money, and whether Mr Aubrey’s job will work out – all of which the children – the three girls at least, are well aware of. Mrs Aubrey, Clare is a former concert pianist, and she spends much of her time giving her daughters musical instruction. It appears that Mary and Rose will follow in their mother’s footsteps, while the elder sister Cordelia, playing violin rather than piano – appears to lack a true musical gift.

Piers Aubrey is very much adored by his children, at least at this early period, though there is a sense that he is unreliable. Despite his obvious talents, he uses what little money the family has to speculate on other ventures, losing money and exposing his family constantly to the risk of absolute penury and the shame of debt. A fighter of causes too, he is loved and always forgiven by his family despite his frequent failures. London seems almost a dream, and there is more anxiety about the arrangements when Mrs Aubrey doesn’t hear from her husband for several weeks. The day arrives however, when letter or no letter, they must start the journey to London, hoping there is a house for them waiting at the other end.

“I cannot remember what I saw that afternoon, because I saw it too often afterwards. But here the road came to an end, running to a wrought iron gateway, flanked by pillars on which two gryphons supported coats-of-arms, and set in a high brick wall. The gates were blind, backed with tarred boards, and this might have been frightening, but reassured, it proclaimed that everybody had gone, the place was private. On the right was a neat terrace of a dozen houses. Just before the gateway, on our left, was our new house. A neat plaque on its first floor gave the figures ‘1810’ and it had the graces of its time.”

Once in London, the children find themselves taking up residence in house their father used to once stay in as a child when visiting an aunt. The family are renting the house from a cousin of their father’s and in time the three young sisters can’t help but worry about the lateness of the rent due to Cousin Ralph.

Mrs Aubrey is a worn out, dishevelled woman, there are moments when her daughters – as much as they love her – feel a little embarrassed by her. They hate being poor – and long for the day when they can be concert pianists and earn money for their family. Yet the children are fortunate at least in their mother – she is no fool – she’s intelligent, a gifted musician, caring and clear sighted she holds her family together. Living close by is Constance, Clare Aubrey’s cousin, she lives in a different kind of neighbourhood, and West allows us to understand that while the Aubrey’s are far from well off they live in a much better, more desirable location. Clare and Rose visit Constance and her daughter Rosamond – dispensing with a poltergeist (as you do) – but are rather taken aback at the sight of the street they find Constance living in.

“Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called ‘common’. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other, and, what was especially degrading, ‘made face,’ as well as well as not having baths every day. We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.”

Constance is married to another unreliable man, and Rosamond, Rose and Mary often swap notes on their hopeless fathers.

The story of this engaging family is slow to get going but the Aubrey family grew on me, they are very engaging, and Rose is superb teller of their story. The story of the next few years in this house in London is packed with incident. Cordelia is taken under the wing of Miss Beevor – who encourages the pupil she adores to play the violin in public, allowing the poor girl to believe herself to be possessed of a greater talent than she has. Cordelia is desperate to rid herself of the poverty her father has reduced them to – and her ambition is fuelled. Her mother wants only to help Cordelia realise her error – and they enter into that age-old battle, so familiar to mothers and daughter everywhere.

Soon the family are thrust into a drama of another kind entirely – the Aubreys find themselves drawn into a scandalous murder case, when the mother of a school friend of Rose and Mary is put on trial for the murder of her husband.

West’s writing is lovely, the warmth of this family contrasts brilliantly with the struggles and moments of despair inflicted upon them. Clare Aubrey emerges as the family saviour – and is the character I admired the most. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Mar 25, 2017 |
This semi-autobiographical novel is a family story told from the children's point of view. Rose Aubrey, her older sisters Mary & Cordelia, and her younger brother Richard Quin are in a loving but dysfunctional family, with a father (Piers) who cannot hold a job and tends to gamble money away, and a mother (Clare) who gives 100% to her children while coping with his failings. Music plays a significant role in the novel. Cordelia, the eldest, takes up the violin and, encouraged by her teacher, performs locally. But Clare knows she does not have real talent and that one day her hopes will be dashed. Clare, an accomplished pianist, sees more potential in Rose and Mary. The sisters also form a close bond with their cousin Rosamund, who along with her mother prefer time with the Aubreys to time spent with Rosamund's father. And despite their limited resources, the family comes to the aid of another in their town when their lives are torn apart by a brutal crime. Over the years the family has its ups and downs as a result of Piers' failed schemes, but are held together by Clare who, in the end, proves to have the upper hand on the entire situation. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Feb 26, 2017 |
Superlative writing, 7 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: The Fountain Overflows (VMC) (Paperback)
One of the best books I've ever read, focussing on the shabby genteel Aubrey family, living in Edwardian London. Father is adored: he builds exquisite dolls' houses and tells the children of his own youth. But as narrator Rose observes
'Because I was his daughter I could not have known all of him, there was that continent in which I could not travel, the waste of time before I was born and he already existed. I could not have been a child with him, I could not have been with him and his brother when they knelt on the dry red beech-leaves, with their laughing faces pressed against the pulsing silken necks of their crouched and panting ponies, the tree trunks rising sharp silver above them to the blue October haze.'
Yet despite his intelligence as a newspaper editor, Father constantly speculates and keeps his family in penury.
It is Mother- a former concert pianist- who keeps the family together. Music forms a major part of the book, with Mary and Rose devoted to their piano practice. Elder sister Cordelia gives violin recitals but cannot see that she lacks true musical talent.
I was struck by West's ability to explain so clearly the difference between an 'eccentric' family (all but one of whom love their life) and the 'ordinary' folk around them.
'Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called 'common'. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other...We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.'
Also of the difficulties the eccentric have in integrating:
'They were incapable of getting on terms with their fellow creatures on the plane where most of us find that easy. My mother could not dress herself to go out of her house tidily enough to avoid attracting hostile stares, she could not speak to strangers except with such naivete that they thought her a simpleton, or with such subtlety that they thought her mad. She was never much more negotiable than William Blake. My father was unable to abandon to the slightest degree his addiction to unpunctuality, swarthy and muttering scorn, and insolvency.'
Wonderful, wonderful book- do read it! ( )
1 vote starbox | Jul 9, 2016 |
‘The Fountain Overflows’ was Rebecca West’s first book in twenty years; and it was to have been the first volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of her century. She didn’t live quite long enough to complete that story, but after reading this book I am eager to read the next book and to read the final, unfinished work.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it tells of growing up in a creative, musical family, from the perspective of one of the children of that family; a girl named Rose.

The father of the family, Piers Aubrey, was charming but he was thoughtless. He was the editor of a minor newspaper, he was a man who was ready to stand by and act on his convictions, but he was also a man who gambled away any money he earned on the Stock Exchange. He loved his wife, he loved his children, but he seemed unwilling – or unable – to accept the responsibilities that laid upon him.

wife and his children might have resented the choices he made, they might have been disappointed in him; but they weren’t. They loved him, they appreciated his strengths, and they accepted his weaknesses as inevitable in someone who had to venture outside the musical family circle to do battle for them in a world that didn’t appreciate the things that they loved. And so they did their level best to adapt themselves to his absences, to the loss of their good furniture, to frequent changes of address, and to love the copies of family portraits that hung in the children’s bedrooms.

And, of course, it is the mother of the family who holds things together; so clearly adoring her children, her family unit, and her role as mother. She had been a concert pianist, but everything that she had put into achieving that goal was put into family life. She loved finding the right instrument for each child – the violin for Cordelia, her eldest daughter, the piano for each of her twin girls, Rose and Mary; and the flute would – some time into the story – prove to be the instrument for her young son, Richard Quinn.

The author understood – and she made me understand and appreciate – the complex ties that bound that family together.

The story opens with the family on the cusp of moving to a new home in South London, where they will be settled for quite some time. It took me a little while to get my bearings, but I was enchanted with Rose’s voice; with the mixture of the descriptive, the fanciful, and the matter-of-fact; with the intelligence and the insight; and intensity, the love and the gorgeous, child-like attentiveness to detail of it all.

I was just a little sorry that Mary seemed often to disappear; or to be a mere adjunct to Rose, who was sometimes a little too conveniently always at the centre of things.

A picture emerged, and then I was truly captivated, and drawn right into family life.

The story is peppered with incident – most notably the ridding of a cousin’s home from a poltergeist, and the case of a neighbour who has been unjustly accused of murder – but those are not the things that make this story sing.

What does make the story sing?

Well, there’s wonderful insight into the condition of childhood, and the way that, despite its genteel poverty, the family’s lives are rich and full. There’s the drawing close together of a family that is a little isolated, because it is different, because there seems to be no one close to them who understands the very special magic of the creative, artistic life.

The children’s love for each other, that endures even when Cordelia’s wish for a more conventional life maddens them, is caught perfectly. They all adore their little brother, Richard Quinn, who is bright, idiosyncratic, and utterly irresistible. They happily draw their cousin Rosamunde, who is not musical but who they recognise has other wonderful gifts, into their circle. They accept Nancy, daughter of the neighbour accused of murder, too, they are terribly sorry that she seems ungifted, but that is no obstacle to them taking to her hearts. Her difference fascinates them, and they determine that they will help her, as they will help their mother and all of those they love, when their musical gifts rescue them from poverty. They have such wonderful, unwavering faith that they will succeed.

The darkness of the material world, where their father must do battle, is set against the warmth and love of the home that their mother creates. That is why he can always be forgiven. But as the children grow things change. Cordelia could play, but she could not truly understand her music, and so, of course, she could never be a professional musician. Her mother understood that but Cordelia couldn’t, and her pretensions were fostered by an a teacher who had just the same weaknesses. The playing out of this strand is particularly well judged; the contrast between the mother who saw and the teacher who didn’t, and judged the mother harshly, is striking; and I was devastated for Cordelia when she finally came to understand.

That final drama led this novel to its own conclusion.

Taken as a whole it feel idiosyncratic, but that feels right because it is catching all of the twists and turns of lives lived. There were times when it made my heart sing, and there were times when I thought it might break. The writing is so lovely, and it speaks so profoundly of family and musicality, that I was lost when I reached the final page and my life and those lives moved apart. ( )
3 vote BeyondEdenRock | Nov 20, 2015 |
One of the most difficult writing skills must be to write convincingly from a child's point of view. When it's done well though, it's a form that tells its story with a view the reader has often long abandoned. Being reminded of our childhood thoughts and selves can take us back to those ways of thinking and allow us to consider, with hindsight, the strange world of "grownups" and how we got to be such creatures. Great Granny Webster, A Childhood in Scotland and Frost in May all did this for me in the past couple of years. The Fountain Overflows is my latest foray into this world. Interestingly, all these books frame a similar time.

The period from 1890-1910 was somewhat like childhood itself. On the one hand, there was rapid change in the immediate world outside, as things like clothing, lighting and transportation leapt forward into the new century. On the other, so much felt like it would never change: the rituals of schools, meals and family life. Although the class structure in England had started to alter, that change had not yet come to the Aubrey family, the focus of this somewhat autobiographical novel.

The Aubreys were certainly entitled by education and background to a strong position in the middle classes. Piers Aubrey, the father, was an editor and political writer of some standing. Unfortunately, he was also an inveterate gambler and speculator, whose escapades forced the family into frequent moves and ever seedier accommodation. The children, three girls and a boy, were "not part of any world". Marriage prospects were practically nonexistent for the girls.

Their mother tried to shelter them from these realities, but as children do, they knew they were different. They were not part of the middle class economically, and their speech and upbringing ensured they did not fit into the lower classes. Rose, the narrator, instinctively understood these distinctions. On a first visit to their Aunt Constance, who lived in an even worse part of south London than the Aubreys, Rose realized exactly what it was that separated her family from those around them
... I realised without emotion that Constance lived among the kind of people who in those days were called 'common'. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who lived in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and who did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other, and what was specially degrading, 'made face' as well as not having baths every day. We did not despise these people, we simply felt they did not have as amusing a time as we did, and we had understood, almost as soon as we could understand anything, that we had to rely on our own efforts if we were not to find ourselves living on that level, and I was not surprised, therefore, to find that a relative of mine had sunk to that level; I was only anxious to find out whether she found life there supportable.

The children's mother, based on West's own mother, devoted herself to creating lives for them that would lead them to some form of success. A talented musician, she saw enough talent in Rose and Mary to allow her to believe that they could make their ways in the world through music. Their father became less and less present in their lives. Rose had started her story by leading the reader directly into her parents' relationship. There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mama and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again. As time went on, the pauses and the absences grew longer.

Since this was an Edwardian house, troubles were never discussed in front of or with the children. They were left to work out among themselves the causes of the odd swings in the life of the family. They learned the subtle signs that distinguished the bearable from the unbearable. Music was the constant presence in their lives, a solace and discipline that took them away from their surroundings. West skilfully uses it as a metaphor as Rose and Mary develop through their studies, while their less talented sister Cordelia floundered through hers.

All this makes it sound like a thoroughly depressing novel, when it is actually nothing of the sort. There is a joy and purpose in these children and their mother as they live their rich interior lives despite their outward poverty. First published in 1957, West intended this book to be the first in a series of three or four books devoted to 'the saga of the century'. Other projects came along though, and this was the only volume to be completed. There are hints and foreshadowings of what was to come, especially the cloud of WWI. This book can certainly stand on its own however. Perhaps it's better just to remember the voices of childhood.
2 vote SassyLassy | Nov 17, 2015 |
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[A]lthough it is clever and moderately entertaining in a leisurely fashion, it lacks entirely the diamond brilliance, the fierce intelligence and the incisive vigor of an obviously superior mind that we have learned to expect in any book by Rebecca West. . . It is a pleasant story enlivened by occasional splashes of verbal wit in general and particularly on life among the artistically gifted.

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Westprimary authorall editionscalculated
Craig, AmandaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glendinning, VictoriaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
William Blake
First words
There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again.
'Constance lived among the kind of people which in those days were called 'common'. More fortunate children than ourselves might have called them poor, but we knew better, for most of them were no poorer than we were. They were people who live in ugly houses in ugly streets among neighbours who got drunk on Saturday nights, and did not read books or play music or go to picture galleries and who were unnecessarily rude to each other...We did not despise these people, we simply felt that they did not have as amusing a time as we did.'
Boys were playing football, a sight which almost made me glad I was a girl and could do really interesting and adventurous things
`I exercised an ingenuity which really gave the pamphlet a parallel
existence in the spheres of literature and the game of chess.'
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
"I did not want to grow up . . . It was my father and mother who existed, I could see them as two springs, bursting from a stony cliff, and rushing down a mountainside in torrent, and joining to flow through the world as a great river."

Rose Aubrey is one of a family of three girls and their adored younger brother, Richard Quin.  Their father, Piers, is the disgraces son of an Irish landowning family, a violent, noble, improvident and, when it suits his ends, quite unscrupulous leader of popular causes.  His Scottish wife, Clare, is an artist, a tower of strength, fanatically devoted to a musical future for her daughters.  

This is the story of their life in South London - a life threatened by Piers's streak of tragic folly which keeps them on the verge of financial ruin and social disgrace.Set in the year 1900, this is without doubt Rebecca West's masterpiece; a stirring, beautifully-told story of family love and family feuds, of three girls growing up in the Edwardian era, determined both to become artists and to live lives their own.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140073221, Paperback)

The lives of the talented Aubrey children have long been clouded by their father?s genius for instability, but his new job in the London suburbs promises, for a time at least, reprieve from scandal and the threat of ruin. Mrs. Aubrey, a former concert pianist, struggles to keep the family afloat, but then she is something of a high-strung eccentric herself, as is all too clear to her daughter Rose, through whose loving but sometimes cruel eyes events are seen. Still, living on the edge holds the promise of the unexpected, and the Aubreys, who encounter furious poltergeists, turn up hidden masterpieces, and come to the aid of a murderess, will find that they have adventure to spare.

In The Fountain Overflows, a 1957 best seller, Rebecca West transmuted her own volatile childhood into enduring art. This is an unvarnished but affectionate picture of an extraordinary family, in which a remarkable stylist and powerful intelligence surveys the elusive boundaries of childhood and adulthood, freedom and dependency, the ordinary and the occult.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:21 -0400)

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The children of the unstable and eccentric Piers and Clare Aubrey must learn to make do, in a story taking place in the London suburbs in the years leading up to World War One.

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