Toffs and their sisters: Rachel Cusk

the book:

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

published 2005 chapter 1 (events in the 1980s)

[The scene is Caris’s 18th birthday party, being held in the family home, watched by outsider Michael, a university friend of Caris’s brother]

"...At that moment Caris emerged from the house. She came out of a door at the back and stood alone. She looked more extraordinary than any person I had seen before, although it is hard to say exactly why she gave this impression. She was wearing a simple white dress that left her arms and shoulders bare and she had her brown hair loose. A wreath of ivy sat on the top of her head. She wore no shoes or jewellery. Her pale face was very beautiful. She looked like a goddess. Everyone turned, and when they saw her they applauded riotously..."


Rachel Cusk is in the news in UK literary circles at the moment, because of her memoir of marital breakdown, published around now. An extract from the book in the Guardian newspaper (which Cusk seems to claim – also in the Guardian - was unfairly edited) was the subject of much mirth and criticism, and a truly brilliant, very mean, parody here. She is not a writer who makes any attempt to be likeable (though she seems to be terribly surprised that she is unpopular). Her non-fiction book about having babies A Life’s work, divides readers: some hate it (and, of course, her), but round here we think it is a terrifying, honest and brilliant piece of work. She wrote about moving to Italy, about her marriage, and a memorably rude article about her bookgroup, of all things. What was she thinking of? You don’t diss your bookgroup. Though the immediate thought on reading it was ‘totally on the side of the bookgroup here, would love to hear their version.’

Then there’s her fiction: her characters live on the unloveable to hatable spectrum, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. The books all feel like excerpts from some much longer roman fleuve, they seem to stop and start abruptly, for no special reason. But they are readable enough, and with some great phrases and descriptions dotted about to keep you going through the frequent annoying patches. This one is a refreshingly sour take on the mesmerized lower class friend who meets toffs and their sisters while at uni (see also: Brideshead in this blog entry, and toffs and reverse toffs – posh boy visits the middle classes - in Alan Hollinghurst), though the structure of the book is very strange. It’s a book that’s good in glimpses.

The photo is of Lady Lavery, wife and frequent subject of one of Ireland’s leading portrait painters, Sir John Lavery. She also painted herself, and was a leading socialite of her day, friend to the famous. She is dressed as Botticelli's Primavera. The picture is part of the
Bain collection at the Library of Congress, and can be seen on Flickr.