Barbara Vine slowly, surely, effortlessly turning up the tension knob
I seemed to see Bell as she was almost the first time I ever saw her, walking into the hall at Thornham to tell us that her husband had shot himself
From the first chapter of The House of Stairs……..and yes, it’s a great hookline!
I read this many years ago, and a review I stumbled upon reminded me of its excellence, hence my re-read, and because I know the outcome/conclusion could settle back and enjoy the journey Vine takes us on.
It was originally published in 1988, and was I think the third book Ruth Rendell wrote as ‘Barbara Vine’, where her interest is more in dark and complex psychology and a more literary style of writing than her crime and detective fiction ‘Ruth Rendell’ books. Detectives rarely figure in Vine, but the complex central characters twist and unfold often dark deeds, dark motivations, dark histories
This is firstly a splendid evocation of loose, permissive, vibrant and sexy 60s London.
Elizabeth, the central character and narrator, now a woman on the edge of her 40’s, is looking back from the 1980s to that earlier period of her life. She is a writer of beach read historical fiction, fairly famous, fairly well off. However, she hankered to be a more serious writer, due to her love of Henry James, and really also wished to write a biography of James. Echoes of the plot of James’ Wings of The Dove are a kind of parallel or subtext to this.
Elizabeth, as a passenger in a taxi spots a woman heading towards a tube station who she has not seen for nearly 20 years. ‘Bell’ Sanger has a murky past, and there is also a relationship from that past of some obsession, on Elizabeth’s part, with Bell.
The first person story is told by Elizabeth partly in present time (that is its 80s setting) and partly back to the time when she first encountered Bell, in the 60s, and their lives connected, in a dark and destructive way. The narrator is trying to unravel her own past, her own complicity, her own history, and understand her own damaged life. Much of this damage occurred in `The House of Stairs’, a large house in West London, owned by Elizabeth’s recently widowed aunt, Cosette, who is wealthy, generous, and middle-aged . Cosette is determined to recapture the youth and romance she never had by filling her house with the trendy, free-loading, experimental bright (and not so bright) bohemian young things of swinging London.
Bell has a dark past which we learn all the way back to childhood. She is extraordinarily beautiful, bearing a strong resemblance to Bronzino’s portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi. She appears to be passive and indifferent to sex, but is passionately determined never to work. In fact, for Bell, a life of drudging poverty is preferable to working. But free-loading, though not in an obvious way, is something she has a skill for.
Elizabeth too has a potentially dark secret – as an inheritor of a degenerative, rare condition, Huntington’s chorea, her family ‘curse’ which may or may not lie dormant within her. At the time of the book’s earlier setting, predictive genetic testing for the disease was unknown, as was the statistical mapping of its inheritance. As the condition tended to stay dormant till adulthood inheritors might have already had children before they realised what they might have passed on to them. Elizabeth’s own body feels like a ticking time bomb; though symptom free, she is not yet old enough to know she is ‘out of the woods’ and free from that inheritance.
So, with her aunt Cosette, desperately seeking to rediscover youth, Elizabeth unknowing whether she will succumb to a terrible condition or not, and Bell, charismatic in some unostentatious way, amorally in search of a way to enable her to suck the money out of anyone she can, and indifferent towards the methods she might use to achieve her ends, Vine assembles a wonderfully drawn collection of individuals from across the classes, painting a portrait of a society moving from the more rigid mores of the 50s to a period of change, shake up and anything goes sex.
And the twists, turns and plot intricacies, though slowly unfurled, are inexorable and keep the reader glued to ‘just another chapter’