Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey
Hogarth Press, 1932 and Persephone Books, 2009

As she prepares for her marriage ceremony, young Dolly Thatcham swigs rum out of a bottle in her bedroom and wonders what is awry with her life. The reader sees a simple answer to Dolly’s question, yet Dolly herself is unable and unwilling to acknowledge it (or perhaps she does not know what she would do if she did). The heart is complicated and other human beings bewildering. There is no simple answer in life. Yet at the same time there is, and we all see it, but we do not do anything about it.

Originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s small press, this bleak novella is written with delicate intensity. The narration (confined to an afternoon at a single home) communicates a great deal that it does not say. The colors, furnishings, and lighting convey a tangible mood. Occasionally the surroundings are described in ways that cannot be literally true (such as one woman’s “orange eyes,”) yet the reader feels that in some way they are true nonetheless. Strachey’s ability to evoke is lovely.

The novella suggests that fundamental honesty from and between people is absent from life, or at least from the middle-class, conventional life of the author’s day, and that this is why life is a weary tragedy. While her belief itself is not unique, she manages to convey it with few words and little plot, and without anything outwardly unpleasant happening to the characters. Their mistakes are self-chosen, and even though they are forward-thinking young people who mock the conventions, that does not save them from a lack of understanding about their own desires.

Julia Strachey (described by Woolf as a “gifted wastrel”) lived a lifestyle reminiscent of Dorothy’s Sayer’s portrayal of Bohemia, but with sadder undertones. No doubt she attempted to pursue fundamental honesty in her own abandonment of middle-class moral and social conventions. The forward to the new edition of her novel, written by her friend and biographer, describes the ending that accompanied the marital aspect of this attempt:

“She was very happy indeed with Lawrence Gowing [her second husband, who was seventeen years younger than she was] during the next thirty years, for fifteen of which they were married. They roared with laughter at each other’s jokes and he looked after her devotedly. From 1962 onwards, after Lawrence fell in love with a very charming and attractive girl…they tried for a while to live as a threesome. But sadly, after Lawrence and his new wife had children, this was no longer possible, even though Jenny Gowing was very kind I think and behaved in a very civilized way, and Julia grew more and more lonely.”

Is Strachey’s bleak sketch of “conventional life” accurate? In a sense, it is—dependence on human beings to successfully and independently find absolute Truth and live with complete Honesty leads to disappointment. Yet Strachey does not paint a complete picture, because she focuses only on the inadequacy inside her characters and does not include any character who lives for something bigger than him or herself. Even the love that the protagonists feel (or may have felt) does not extend to compassion for each other—it is entirely about each person’s inner experience. Dolly does not seem to believe in the platitudes and social constructs of her world, yet neither does she find any other system of thought that she is willing to act on. Her story would have been very different if she had believed in something.

Note: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was made into a movie that came out in New Zealand this year. Judging by the movie synopsis on, I suspect the story has been changed significantly to translate it to film.


  1. Weirdly, this review correctly names the author in the headline, but calls her "Strachan" throughout. As she was the niece of Lytton Strachey, prominent member of the Bloomsbury group, and as that fact is well-known, it seems an odd mistake to make.


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