It occurs to me that it will probably take me longer to write this blog post than it did to read the actual book - it's a very short book but my reaction to it is quite confused, sorting out my thoughts is taking a while. This was a re-read prompted by Stuck In A Book's read along of a book I first read just before I started blogging - it's one of those books that I vividly remember buying and reading - in Carlisle and then on the train back to Leicester on a warm and sunny June day - which I mention because I think the weather on each reading very much altered my perception of the book.
Last time, on a day which would have been cheerful weather for a wedding, my memory was of a mostly funny book, I thought it a bit uneven, but I don't recall picking up quite so much cruelty in the humour as I did this time round. The weather today has been bright, but perishing cold with a stiff wind blowing - very much as described in the book (very much, as the difference between the 2nd of February and the 5th of March is more noticeable in the hours of daylight than the degree of warmth) it's not the kind of weather that promotes ease.
The opening paragraph doesn't really promote ease either but it does set the tone: "On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service." That 'middle-class' has a sting in it - the couple are being married from Mrs Thatcham's country house (or as Strachey has it - house in the country - there is a difference) she has parlour maids, a sewing maid, a cook, a gardener, a ladies maid, and help in from the village - there are likely more staff (I suspect a chauffeur) all of which feels quite lavish for a middle class household in 1932. I assume the inference is that Mrs Thatcham would be insulted by the label, that her daughter is marrying 'up', and that the absolute desirability of a well off young man with a title as a son in law to a middle class mother is distinctly non-U.
The bride herself is more harassed than anything else - her wedding preparations seem to mostly consist of downing the best part of a bottle of rum. There are regrets for a boyfriend of the previous summer - Joseph - and the suggestion that they loved each other rather more than Dolly loves Owen. Joseph is sitting downstairs wondering of he can stop the wedding without seeing to what end - he doesn't want to marry Dolly, and he's easily the most likeable character in the book, she clearly wants a husband - probably as a way of escaping her mother in a conventionally acceptable manner which also marks her as 'middle class' in the most damning way. A point underlined when Strachey describes her as being a touch vulgar in her going away outfit.
Mrs Thatcham - modelled on Strachey's own mother in law - is a monster. Dull, narrow minded, waspish, critical, forever changing her mind and orders then blaming the servants for their extraordinary mistakes, and unkind to small boys in the matter of chocolates she bustles through the book an enervating, irritating, presence wherever she appears. It's funny but also appalling, the more so for realising she's a portrait as Strachey shows her no compassion whatsoever.
The redeeming element of 'Cheerful Weather For The Wedding' for me though is the running battle between two brothers - Robert and Tom. Robert is wearing emerald green socks and his brother is in anguish over it. He's desperate for Robert to divest himself of those bounders socks before someone else notices them and just can't let it go. He tries every form of blackmail he can think of - all to no avail - and it'll clearly end in tears. I wish all the book were as perfect as the sock episodes. It's funny because it's so recognisable - both the agony and anger you feel when a sibling looks likely to cause you embarrassment (and how out of proportion it gets), and the distress of being bullied.
I doubt I'll get the chance to see the filmed version of this - and doubt how well it will have been adapted - at it's heart this is a bleak little book full of snobbery and meanness for which I rather admire it, but I suspect that it will have been sweetened up for a film audience and that some of the claustrophobic feeling of a house full of family will be lost. I would however travel a distance to see a stage version...