Overlooked, by Maurice Baring

I need to catch up with a post on some of my recent reads, most of which have turned out to be among their authors’ lesser efforts, unfortunately.

Cover of House of Stratus reissue of "Overlooked"Of the lot, by far the most interesting and, within its limited range, successful was Maurice Baring’s slim 1922 novel Overlooked. Had the term been in use back then, Overlooked would have been called an experimental novel. For what Baring undertook was truly an experiment in fiction.

The first half of the book is titled, “The Papers of Anthony Kay.” A blind man sent by his doctor for two month’s rest at a seaside resort called Hareville, a fictional stand-in for Deauville or a similar society retreat of the early 20th century. There he encounters a sampling of international society–a scandalous Italian/French widow; a French/Russian princess; an ambiguously Slavic intellectual; an upright but neer-do-well English lady, Mrs. Lennox, and her beautiful niece, Miss Jean Brandon; and an English novelist named James Rudd.

Kay contemplates writing a novel as a way of relaxing, and he and Rudd fall into discussing Miss Brandon. Kay quickly gives up on his idea, but she inspires Rudd to begin sketching out his own story based on his imaginative speculations about her life:

“She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express : or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise.”

While Rudd sequesters himself to work on his book, Kay befriends a cross-section of his hotel’s residents. With each of them, the conversation eventually gets around to the topic of Miss Brandon–her belligerent late father, her apparently broken engagement with an heir dispatched to India, her beauty and air of mystery. Each conversation is a mix of fact, gossip, and rumor, and each creates, in effect, a portrait of her from a different perspective.

Late in this first section, Miss Brandon’s erstwhile fiancé arrives in Hareville, but he seems to spurn her for the attentions of one of the scandalous widows du jour. Miss Brandon turns for solace to the mysterious Slav, and for a moment, they become secretly engaged. Kay departs before learning the outcome of the story.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to the text of Rudd’s long short story, “Overlooked,” which he published in a private edition of 500, sending a copy to Kay. In “Overlooked,” Miss Brandon has become “Kathleen Farrel,” and Hareville “Saint-Yves-les-Bains.” All the main characters Kay encountered reappear with different names and slightly altered back stories.

As promised, Rudd provides a fairy tale to explain Brandon/Farrell’s sense of evanescence:

Once, when she was a little girl, she had gone to pick flowers in the great dark wood near her home, where the trees had huge fantastic trunks, and gnarled boles, and where in the spring-time the blue-bells stretched beneath them like an unbroken blue sea. After she had been picking blue-bells for nearly an hour, she had felt sleepy. She lay down under the trunk of a tree. A gipsy passed her and asked to tell her fortune. She had waved her away, as she had no sympathy with gipsies. The gipsy had said that she would give her a piece of good advice unasked, and that was, not to go to sleep in the forest on the Eve of St. John, for if she did she would never wake. She paid no attention to this, and she dozed off to sleep and slept for about half-an-hour. She was an obstinate child, and not at all superstitious. When she got home, she asked the housekeeper when was the Eve of St. John. It happened to fall on that very day. She said to herself that this proved what nonsense the gipsies talked, as she had slept, woken up, come back to the house, and had high tea in the schoolroom as usual. She never gave the incident another thought ; but the housekeeper, who was superstitious, told one of the maids that Miss Kathleen had been overlooked by the fairy-folk and would never be quite the same again. When she was asked for further explanations, she would not give any. But to all outward appearances Kathleen was the same, and nobody noticed any difference in her, nor did she feel that she had suffered any change.

Rudd plays out his version, including the return of the fiance and the secret engagement, which is broken off as the two lovers realize the arrangement could only work in a fantasy world free of the constraints of class, money and prejudices.

The book then returns to the “Papers of Anthony Kay.” Kay describes his reaction to “Overlooked” and discusses the book and the story of the real-life Miss Brandon with several people he knew from his time at Hareville. Kay and his friend Doctor Sabran conclude that Rudd got it wrong … but aren’t sure what “right” is:

“I am convinced of one thing only, and that is that the novelist drew false deductions from facts which were perhaps sometimes correctly observed.” [Sabran]

I said I agreed with him. Rudd’s deductions were wrong ; his facts were probably right in some cases; Sabran’s deductions were right, I thought, as far as they went; but we either had not enough facts or not enough intuition to arrive at a solution of the problem.

To another acquaintance, Kay argues that, “Rudd had started with a theory about Miss Brandon, that she was such and such person, and he distorted the facts till they fitted with his theory. At least, that was what I imagined to have been the case.”

In the end, Miss Brandon is reunited with her fiancé, who appears never to have any other objective in mind, and the pair enjoy the most conventional of marriages. Kay, Rudd, and almost everyone else in the book(s), it seems, were all guilty of reading far more into her situation than ever existed.

Characterization is not Baring’s forté in Overlooked. Kay, Rudd, and the rest are sketched just as superficially as Miss Brandon. But for Baring’s purposes, little more than stick figures are needed. Years before it got its name, Baring was experimenting with the Rashomon effect. Rudd applies a fantastic interpretation on Miss Brandon’s story, but his is just the most overt form of fiction in the book. Every one puts his or her spin on her story, influenced by all sorts of factors–from the English sense of propriety to the Italian love of the game of romance. Baring puts the final seal on the artificiality and impermanence of the social affairs of Hareville by noting the date of his departure from the town: June 27, 1914.

Overlooked was Baring’s second novel, published soon after Passing By, which is also something of a play on the nature of a work of fiction. Although the books received warm if not enthusiastic reviews, neither sold well. His next novel, C, was far more conventional in approach–a Bildungsroman set in Edwardian England–and weighed in at a whopping 700-plus pages. C is in print from Faber Finds.

Overlooked was reissued about ten years ago by the House of Stratus, which appears to be a hybrid between a legitimate reissue house and one of the many print-on-demand open source publishers. Stratus reissued a good chunk of Baring’s better work, each with a relatively attractive cover, between 2001 and 2003, but none of these appears to be in print now and Stratus no longer lists Baring among their authors. And the quality of their cover art–and editing–seems to have dropped dramatically, if the Caustic Cover Critic’s example of their version of Brain Aldis(s)’ Dracula Unbound is any indication. But save your money and download a free copy from the Internet Archive: Overlooked, by Maurice Baring.

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring
London: William Heinemann

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