A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“Yes, but — I don’t know whether I have any talent, and neither you nor Mr Molloy will say anything one way or the other. And I do know that I haven’t much feeling. Mr Molloy says so, too. He’s always at me to express more, but I haven’t much to express.”

“What would you have to express — at twenty-one?”

“Surely if I have any feeling, any insight into music, it ought to show itself by now?”

“Not necessarily. Some people are born with huge, gusty typhoons of feeling, all ready to be unleashed. Others have to learn to feel. And when they’re both forty, you’d have a hard time telling one from the other. But when they’re fifty the typhoons will be getting weaker, and the feeling which has been carefully nurtured and schooled may well be growing still. I don’t suppose anybody ever told you that.”


“Look at your physical type. Medium blonde, northern-looking, good solid bones, strong as a horse, I’ll bet, and with an excellent, good big head. You’re not one of those little southern passion-pots, with a rose in her teeth and a stiletto tucked into her garter. She’s got feeling; you’ve got intelligence. She’s a sprinter, you’re a miler. You’ll have to learn, painstakingly, things that she seems to have known from her cradle. But because she’s never had to learn them, they may desert her quickly — after an illness, or when her lover runs off with another girl, or something. Whereas you, once you’ve learned a thing, will cling to it like a bulldog, or like a snapping-turtle which is supposed never to relax its hold till sundown.”

“I see,” said Monica, who was overjoyed to be compared to a bulldog or a snapping-turtle under these circumstances.

“So get on with the job. Stop fretting because you’re not worldly-wise and chock-full of Beethovenian Sturm und Drang at twenty. That’s not your type at all. Stop fussing that comfort is going to knock the props from under your genius. Develop what you’ve got: make it possible for your emotions to grow. Get on with the job. Work, work, work. How are the languages?”

“Not too bad, Amy said.”

“Well, work harder and make them damned good. And do what Murtagh tells you; if anybody can make a singer of you, he will. And you may take it from me that you’ll get all the experience you want, soon enough. Most people reach a point where they’re wishing experience would stop crowding them. Anyhow, it isn’t what happens to you that really counts: it’s what you are able to do with it. The streets are crammed with people who have had the most extra­ordinary experiences — been shipwrecked, chased out of Caliph’s harems, blown sky-high by bombs — and it hasn’t meant a thing to them, because they couldn’t distill it. Art’s distillation; experience is wine, and art is the brandy we distill from it. — Now, you’ll have to go. I’ve a man coming about some music for a contemporary composers’ series. And don’t worry; we’ll think of some ways to spend the Bridgetower money. — By the way, did you ever know this Mrs Bridgetower?”

“Oh no; she was an invalid for years, I think. Anyway — I wouldn’t have known her.”

“She sounds like a loony. This Trust of hers is silly. Still, if the money has to be spent, we’ll spend it.”


Experience — well, Paris had been experience. Amy Neilson had taught her a lot about eating, for instance. It had been a surprise to Monica to find that her very best manners weren’t the thing at all, according to Amy, and she had had to modify them, not in the direction of more gentility, but less. And the gay little laugh with which she had been accustomed to pass off any social difficulty — Amy had quickly rooted out that little laugh. There had been, well, dozens of things that Amy had discouraged, always in the kindest possible way, and Monica had been a quick learner. Her clothes had been reformed in the direction of plainness; some rings and earrings, which were certainly not expensive, but which she had once thought very pretty, had been discarded; a tendency toward cuteness in dress and manner had withered under Amy’s hint that to be cute was not the whole end of woman.

Yes, that was all experience. But shallow, surely? Not the raw material for one of Molloy’s muhds. What else? That party to which Amy had taken her in that wonderful apartment on the Rue Scheffer — just like the movies, with a view which included the Eiffel Tower — that had been experience. For it was a very musical party, to introduce the work of a promising young composer, and Monica had gone to it in a reverential spirit. And what had happened? The assembled musicians, and patrons and critics and concert agents had listened far less intently and politely than the audience of the Community Concerts in Salterton would have done; some of them, sitting on a stair which led to a gallery above the salon, had actually talked, in loud whispers, and not about the music, either! That was experience, surely — to discover that in Paris, of all places, real music-lovers could be so rude as to talk while music was being played? She had men­tioned this to Amy, and Amy had laughed. “You don’t have to be serious about it all the time,” she had said. But surely you did have to be serious about it all the time? Wasn’t that what Sir Benedict had just — been telling her?

But Sir Benedict wasn’t very serious. He just shot off a lot of talk which seemed to be serious, and turned suddenly into jokes- – the silly kind of jokes the English seemed to like so much. Still, a visit to him always made Monica feel that music was something even better than being serious — it was exciting. And what a marvellous person! So tall, and with a wonderful figure, even though he was fifty-three (she had checked him in Grove) and it didn’t matter a bit that he was so bald and had really an uncommonly big nose. Her attitude toward him was worshipful, but she did wish he would explain himself a little more fully. His remark that she was intelligent, for instance. Why couldn’t he have expanded that? If she was intelligent, why couldn’t she summon up more muhd for Molloy?

What had he meant when he said that some people had to learn to feel? Surely that was a contradiction? And all that about distilling experience from the wine of life. What experience had come her way that could be distilled? Did he mean that everything was experience?

As Monica pondered, a large, middle-aged nun, with a school-girl in her charge, entered the bus and sat down beside her. The nun composed her vast skirts, and fished a rosary of workmanlike appear­ance from their depths. “Come along now, Norah,” she said in a loud, cheerful voice to the girl at her side, “never waste a minute; let’s say a rosary for the conversion of the people on the bus.”

Was that experience? Could it be made into anything? Did it add anything to her?

Distilling thus, Monica went back to Courtfield Gardens, buying some special cakes for her tea on the way, to celebrate having spent half an hour with the exciting Sir Benedict.


October passed in more work with Molloy. A splendid combination gramophone and radio had arrived one day at Courtfield Gardens for Monica, with a note from Sir Benedict urging her to make good use of it, and to buy as many records as she wished. It was unfortunate that on the very day of the arrival of this glossy monster, Peggy Stamper and one of her dirty young men in corduroys dropped in.

“Coo!” said Peggy, surveying it in wonder; “have you bought that?”

“I suppose so,” said Monica; “it’s to be part of my training.”

Peggy and the young man commented freely, and not without envy, on the kind of training which demanded so costly an object, and it was plain to Monica that the radiogram put her, so far as these two were concerned, in a different world from themselves. They were poor on principle; it was part of their creed that nobody who was serious about art ever had a bean, and those of their group who had allowances from home took good care not to offend against this tenet. When they left, Monica knew, without anything having been said about it, that her position on the fringe of Peggy’s group had become even more remote. They had nothing against her, but obviously she was rich, and that was that.

Without being aware that she was doing so, she salved her wound in a manner common to the rich; she bought a lot of expensive albums of recordings, some swansdown cushions for her divan, and some luxurious things to eat; these expenditures numbed, but did not remove, her sense of loss. So she increased the dose of her anodyne; she bought some new clothes — really good ones, of the kind that Amy approved for the well brought up young girl, and a quiet but expen­sive winter coat. If she had lost her place in the corduroy group, she might as well be thoroughly out of it. The clothes and the pleasure of listening to the machine insulated her against loneliness for almost a fortnight. But she knew, every night, and as she prepared her breakfast each morning, that another bout of that terrible destructive despair which had seized her on her first arrival in London was imminent, waiting for an opportunity to descend. It would not be quite the same, for her circumstances had changed, but it would be of the same essence.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson