A Harp in Lowndes Square
by Rachel Ferguson
An impressive experiment that approaches magic realism, in 1936, written with style and sympathy. Vere and James Buchan are twins. They have an older sister who, they quickly learn, is not as bright as they; in time, they appreciate that there’s something wrong but don’t know what. Their mother, a widow, is unhappy and unreliable; their grandmother is clearly a monster, but that doesn’t really explain anything. Something very bad happened in grandmother’s house in Lowndes Square, long ago; now it’s 1916 and Vere, a modern girl, is determined to find out.
A lot of this is very well done. Vere and her twin brother are immensely engaging. Vere gives us buckets of exposition, but they're so sweet and true we don’t mind. And then there’s the element of Fantastika, the bits of magic realism that float through Vere’s London.
Rachel Ferguson would eventually become a reclusive and bitter conservative, and here already you can see the seeds. Vere likes the theater and she likes actors, and we wind up with a big set piece deploring the state of the stage generally and the decline of musical comedy specifically from its late Victorian heights. This novel was published in 1936; in the years immediately before, New York saw the first run of Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Anything Goes (Cole Porter), Face The Music (Irving Berlin), Ziegfield Follies (Josephine Baker), and Jumbo (Rogers and Hart). Harburg and Arlen wrote “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and much else. In London, Rise and Shine had Fred Astaire, Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 was at the Phoenix, Ivor Novello would open in Careless Rapture. The theater is always in trouble, but if this era makes you go all James Forsythe, the problem isn’t on stage.
But that’s just a cloud on the horizon; Ferguson is largely forgotten—I found this through a review in TLS premised on her having been forgotten—but Very and James are exquisite.