The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Our “Dallodays” are almost over, alas, How’d the month go so fast? I simply cannot let it go by without pointing you to yet another book of my heart whose structure borrows bits beautifully (while also remaining entirely original) from Mrs. Dalloway.

This book is engrossingly and beautifully written!

The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman deserves all of the love and affection I am about to heap on it. However, I feel the need to be transparent and also tell you that I know and adore its author, Sena Jeter Naslund. It was in her novel writing workshop that I first dared present an early draft of Victorine.

Her double novel, the story of writer Kathryn Callaghan who has recently completed a draft of a novel about artist Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, is not only doubled in the sense that it tells the stories of both women, but it also “doubles” in showing how two incredibly gifted women overcome major life change and challenges. That doesn’t really have anything to do with Woolf, but I think it’s cleverly done.

While I have read the book numerous times, I don’t trust that I will be able to count all of the ways Mrs. D. permeates the book, so forgive me in advance. This is only a sampling.

I don’t use it to be pretentious, but here’s a literary term that fits perfectly: intertextuality. In short, that’s when one book “speaks” to another. (Here’s a secret: my novel Victorine is in a one-sided constant chatter with Naslund’s books, plural. I am either highlighting a concept she has already shared, am exploring a differing viewpoint to see what I think of it or am celebrating her work in various ways.)

Don’t be shocked – all of literature is in conversation with the rest of it, whether writers have read others’ works or not, because any work that has been read and digested by any author makes its way into the literary stream and when we drink of one, we drink of the one before.

Purposeful echoes or discussions or unconscious connections happen all the time.

Okay, that out of the way, let’s get into it.

Fountain certainly is in dialogue with Woolf in terms of style and structure. Not only does the author in the novel, Callaghan, acknowledge that Woolf and Joyce are influences (a subtle, welcome nod from the author of the actual novel), but others (and I agree) have compared Naslund’s writing to Woolf’s with its emphasis on inner character, on elevating daily life, not to mention its lyrical quality.

Here’s her marvelous opening line. I don’t need to tell you what it echoes: “No matter it was almost midnight, she would deliver her manuscript herself. (A lopsided moon hunched high overhead.)”

One thing this line, stacked with all of the other first (and alternative) first lines I have mentioned in previous posts convinces me of: Woolf wasn’t focused on the flowers. It was the agency of Clarissa, her ability and will, after her illness, to go fetch them herself. Clearly she had servants who were more than willing to get them, but she refused. Later, remember, Richard, her husband, brings her some. But no, she wants to be out and about in the world, if even for just a few minutes. (Reminds me of writers, too. Callaghan probably spends tons of time indoors and is likely pleased to be out in the night air. If the weather were nicer today, I’d be outdoors right now.)

In tone, in cadence, this book also reminds of Dalloway. Woolf’s pacing is both casual and unspooling at once. It’s intertwined with the book’s meaning. Same here.

We are given a walking tour of Callaghan’s neighborhood reminiscent of Clarissa’s walk. In fact, Dalloway is referenced directly, as is a day being a metaphor.

Hints of Woolf, heavy doses of Naslund’s artfully crafted historical fiction, exquisite insights into the human condition, and art! So much wonderful art! Even if I didn’t know Naslund (my novel is dedicated to her), I would have read it for the Woolf aspects and the art alone.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It pairs perfectly with Mrs. Dalloway.

Next up: our very last (for now!) Mrs. Dalloway post.

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