William Babington Maxwell (1866–1938) was a super popular British writer at the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century. Now, W.B. Maxwell is mostly forgotten. Like John Galsworthy and Somerset Maugham, he was born a little too late. His firmly Realist style of writing, alien to any kind of Modernist experimentation, mirrored his rejection of modernity and made it easy for readers to forget him in spite of his initial popularity.
Vivien was published in 1905, and what a great novel it is! I love reading the forgotten literature of the late XIXth and early XXth century because it tells you so much about how people actually lived. In this novel you see the waning years of the Victorian era, the Boer War, the changing status of the aristocracy, the debates surrounding pre-marital sex, the massive entrance of young women from impoverished “good families” into the workplace, the way these women were exploited, harassed and abused at work. You find out how these young women dressed, the efforts they made to pretend they had a good wardrobe, how they dealt with the scarcity of men in the imperial society, what they ate, how they addressed their sexual needs, where they lived, and many other fascinating things. In the midst of all this, you hear the voice of a narrator who is devastated by the disintegration of the old order and sees no place for himself in the changing reality of a new century.
This is a female Bildungsroman written by a male author, and a very conservative one at that. This makes the novel deeply interesting to me on a number of levels.
I read other novels by W.B. Maxwell but they are much lower in quality than Vivien. I bought this book in Kharkov 15 years ago. (How I wish I could find out the way it got there!) Since then, the book traveled with me everywhere until it disintegrated. I don’t mean fell apart, I mean that many pages actually disintegrated making it unreadable. I could, of course, keep requesting it through the interlibrary loan, but I needed a copy of my own. Once, I found a copy at a used books website. It was a very good, high-quality copy, too, but it cost $65 which was an impossibly high price for me at that time. So while I waited to get rich, somebody snapped it up.
And now, finally, after years of searching it became available on Amazon, and I can finally have a copy of my own. Which is what prompted this review.
The problem is that the copies of this book are limited in number. When this one disintegrates after years of massive use, what will I do? If anybody has any tips on how to preserve first editions of old books, feel free to share. Vivien and I will be very grateful.
NB: Everything I mention in this post is based on my own vision of British literature. Please don’t ask me for sources for my explanation of Galsworthy’s and Maugham’s loss of popularity, for example. I studied British literature for decades, so there is no single source for my opinions.