- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

It is, one learns from Ferdinand Mount's new novel, quite possible to make the connection between Goldilocks, the little girl in the fairy tale who ate the bear family's porridge while they strolled waiting for it to cool, and Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. And why shouldn't there be an affinity, such tales being so ingrained in our Western canon, Goldilocks included?
The common thread, of necessity, is not "the matter of Troy" as one early author had it, but of being female and blonde. For his epigraph, Mr. Mount has a snippet of W.B. Yeats' poem "For Anne Gregory," from which, because they are so lovely and evocative of the novel, I will quote not the ending lines he uses, but the opening ones:
Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
The poem is not Yeats' only excursion into the matter of Helen's beauty and catastrophic appeal to men (recall "Lullaby" for another), but the point here is that she is central to our dream in the West, brought up on the classics as we are or at least used to be.
What Mr. Mount — whose name by chance recalls the judgment of Paris on Mount Ida, and with that Jacques Offenbach's "La Belle Helene" — does when not dreaming of the woman who stood atop the towers of Illium and stopped the Trojan elders in their tracks, is edit London's Times Literary Supplement. In "Fairness," his new fiction, Mr. Mount plays a highly allusive and clever riff on the idea of the immemorial Helen in relation to the use, in English and changing over time, of the word "fairness."
No thoughtful reader will need to be drawn an etymological picture to see the range of possibilities: fair hair, fair maid, fair play, versus the chronic unfairness of life, as intimated in John F. Kennedy's remark years ago that, "Life sometimes is unfair."
Mr. Mount's protagonist and first-person narrator is an asthmatic young Englishman called Gus, having been christened not Augustus but, rather, Aldous, after the novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley. And there is something of the didactic, even heavy steamed-pudding quality of that writer's fiction in this book, sorry to report. Mr. Mount was not born to be a novelist, and there is a quality of the picaresque impulse reaching at times a bit far in search of a tale to tell. Reading "Fairness" was harder work than expected.
By way of compensation, Mr. Mount at his best is a wonderful stylist, and his imagining of the world around him is large. His characters are strong, and the principals, Gus and Helen Hardress, come across as both real and fated; and this Helen, who "could have an idyll with anyone if he loved her," is as enigmatic as could be wished. Gus and she are 19 and 18 years old at the outset, fellow "nannies" working the summer for an American and Iranian family respectively in the French seaside town everyone calls "the Ville" — transparently Deauville with its racetrack ( La Touques).
Each day the pair take their charges, three little boys in all, to an exercise and therapy camp run by a formidable French "Monsieur." Gus admires the pale, severe-seeming girl with the body of a "figurine" and marvelous "hair which was golden, a milky gold," but fails to get anything in the way of a love affair going with her. Instead, he allows himself to be seduced by his employer, Jane Stilwell, possessor of a "copper mane" rather than golden tresses. It is here that the larger cast of characters who will play our their lives over something like a 20-year period, from the early 1960s to the beginning of the '80s, begin to be fleshed out.
Jane, rushing to get a late bet on at the track provides a scrumptious taste of Mr. Mount's prose style, already alluded to: "There was something foal-like, awkward yet free about the impulse and the way she ran, the lollop of her hips and her arms and legs like sticks. And a furtive fondness for her came over me, a kindly feeling as though I was fifteen years older than she instead of the other way around."
Quick sketches of natural settings, hardly less seductive, abound, as when Gus is packing his bags to leave the Ville and looks out the window: "It was low tide, the sand as pale as Helen's skin, the sea an uninsistent lilac-grey, the sky motionless. The [local] women in black were stumbling over the shingle talking to each other in hoarse voices. I could hear the clank of their buckets as they walked out over the huge wet sands."
This time the scene is wistful. Gus is leaving in a hurry, his fling with Jane precipitously ended by a second older woman, also with a copper mane, having fallen into his arms on a dimly-lit staircase in the Stilwell's beach house. She is Tucker Wilmot, wife of Dodo Wilmot, an American tycoon of larger-than-life proportions equally comic and sinister. Greeting people, he extends a "hand the size of a small turkey," this being but one bon mot among many sprinkled around and which range from quietly amusing to making the reader laugh out loud.
Subsequent chapters take Gus to Minnow Island, Middlesex, to meet Helen's parents, notably her odd and iconoclastic father, Martin Hardress. Gus follows Helen to Africa, where she has gone to do some chemistry work for Dodo Wilmot, who purportedly is looking to mine emeralds there. When his government job takes him to Birmingham, Gus encounters Helen on the other side of the Thatcher years' mining strike. In these scenes, Mr. Mount's touch with places is too good not to be shared:
"… the broken tarmac, the brooding smell of gas, the little houses petering out into industrial estates and the scrubby heathland beyond with its overgrown disused mine shafts, and the nasal Black Country voices bickering in the clammy dawn."
On his next civil service assignment, Gus sails to New York on the maiden voyage of the Zephyr, a cruise ship for people with respiratory ailments and another project, he discovers, of the ubiquitous and shameless Dodo Wilmot. The name of the vessel's master, Capt. Bosinney, recalls John Galsworthy, and Fragonard's Mlle. O'Murphy of the peerless derriere gets in somehow — two more of Mr. Mount's little jokes, welcome leavening as one follows Gus' at times meandering progress through the book. Toward the end there is a chapter in which the child care abuse frenzy of the early 1980s is brought in, which seemed, I thought, a little much.
Helen, at this point has become a social worker. In a fairy-tale ending, she will be created a baroness, but by then Mr. Mount's reader is ready for anything. Gus' burden throughout is of wanting Helen but never getting her, while a long string of "substandard" other fellows do, and of his marveling at how she remains "still so superior, not in the sense of being proud, but unsullied by these relationships."
"Fairness" is a reader's novel and who, having been raised on the classics, will not sit down for one more telling of the Helen story. If Mr. Mount's book is smaller than the sum of its partsfl and I rather fear that it is, those parts are sufficiently golden to more than warrant time spent with the book.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide