‘The Beginning of Spring’ tells the story of the Reid family. Living in Moscow, (although originally from Salford and Norbury), the Reid’s are Frank, a printer, his wife Nellie, and their three lively children. The novel opens with Nellie’s apparently sudden decision to leave her husband and travel back to England. This breakup provides a backdrop to the novel, but the reasons for the parting are only returned to at the end of the story, and are not explored in any detail. If their married life together was unhappy we are not told in what way. Much of the novel is concerned with the day to day business of managing Frank’s household and print works, and while this is done in very convincing detail – I have no doubt the author’s research was immaculate – it felt like the inclusion of research detail without adding anything to the narrative. I need to consider whether that is fair – is the printing business a metaphor for the way the characters slowly and meticulously present their lives to one another? I suspect not. More convincingly, the printing industry is facing an imminent technological revolution – the introduction of ‘hot metal’ type setting, which foreshadows the revolution about to sweep across Russia. The other metaphor for the pending revolution Fitzgerald uses is meteorological – the beginning of spring in Russia sees the river ice melt, and the houses being thrown open to the mother of all spring cleans. While change is anticipated, and the Russia state is obviously close to breakdown, there is no real sense of menace or impending doom in the novel – Frank has carefully prepared his own retreat from Moscow should it be necessary, and we have no reason to believe that he would not be back in Norbury in time for Christmas should it be necessary.
This is all done with a light touch, but this isn’t a political novel, and despite the setting the real interest lies in the relationships between the central characters. Frank and Nellie’s marriage remains a largely closed book, but it is no surprise that when Frank employs a new nanny, Lisa Ivanovna, to care for the boisterous, confident children, he promptly and predictably falls for her. Lisa is impassive in the face of his tentative advances, and then also mysteriously leaves.
Fitzgerald disappointingly leaves her female characters largely silent. We get no direct insight into their thoughts and feelings; instead the focus remains on the male protagonists. While the narrator keeps a respectful distance we are told sufficient to allow us to work out what they are thinking – the reader is able to discern Frank’s blossoming affection for Lisa, for example, before even he is aware of it. Nellie is a “modern” woman (in the meaning of the phrase at the time, someone who is prepared to countenance pre-marital sex) and is prepared to follow her husband across Europe to preserve her family; she is also prepared to break her family up and abandon her young children. The reader can only guess at her reasons for leaving her husband, and for contemplating a relationship with Selwyn Crane, Frank’s aesthetic accountant.
This novel is full of gentle humour – I particularly liked the sister in law whose conversation revolved around damp – and the pages flew past very quickly, mainly it has to be said in search of something happening. There are some incidents in the novel, but they are sporadic and unconnected, such as the break-in at the print works, or the short holiday at the dacha. I know the intelligent reader will be saying at this point “Or are they?” (unconnected, that is) – and of course it wouldn’t be too hard to construct a narrative/interpretive thread between this series of incidents. This is the kind of novel where the reader has to do a lot of the work – and sometimes that is not worth the effort. There are enough clues in the novel, for example, to construct Nellie’s back story, an explanation for her departure at the beginning of the novel and her even more mysterious return, but I am not invested sufficiently in the characters to do this – I simply don’t care about them enough.
In her book about Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee quotes her as saying that she was very interested in the period 1912-13, just before the first world war. It was, she said, “a time of very great hope… of the coming of the 20th century, hopes of a New Life, a new world, the New Woman, a new relationship between the artist and the craftsman”. Seeing this novel in that light, as a portrait of possibilities, is helpful, but it still had an incomplete, snapshot feel to it that was unsatisfying. Is it unreasonable of me to want more? Surely it is in the nature of a novel rather than a short story to tell us more than “something happened”?
In preparing this review I came across this contemporaneous review in the New York Times. As well as being a worthwhile read on its own merits, I mention it because it mentions the echoes of E M Forster that I also noticed in reading this novel.
Finally, despite this novel’s fine writing, strong characterisation (of the male characters at least), the excellent research (into arcane and obscure details of the Edwardian printing industry in tsarist Russia) and dry humour, I have to wonder how it ended up on the Guardian’s list of the 100 best novel’s written in English. The citation – “a brilliant miniature…a short book with a sly and gentle sensibility, that somehow comprehends a whole world, and many lives.” – borders on hyperbole, but even if you take this commendation unchallenged still doesn’t approach the greatness the list aspired to classify.