Vita Sackville-West, The Death of Noble Godavary (1932)

I was surprised to find almost nothing on the Internet about this short story. Is Vita Sackville-West only reminded these days for her scandalous liaisons, and not for her literary works? I’m afraid so. Yet this short story is rather intriguing, rather low-key but definitely worth knowing. I hesitate to find a theme, a plot arch or one of these beloved ah-ah moments, but the tone is surprising.

The narrator, Gervase Godavary, a 55 year old Londoner, is called back to his native northern valley of Westmorland for his uncle’s funeral. He reluctantly travels to the remote valley; it’s been over 30 years since he’s left the familial birthplace. People around there are uncouth, tough and cold—he hasn’t missed them a bit. He didn’t like his uncle Godavary either, a cold man who to his family’s surprise, had married an Italian as a second wife. He hates this wet, cold, godforsaken place and has barely kept in touch with his relatives, so we’re not clear why exactly he wants to go. He’s essentially a weak man, who won’t take a decision by himself, so you suppose he didn’t want not to be there.

The old man’s wake is rather strained. There’s Austen, the heir, a married cousin of his who sleeps with him (yes, I guess they have some boundary issues in this family), the Italian widow and her daughter Paola, who’s effectively Austen’s half-sister – and the narrator and his brother who is crazy for Paola, but doesn’t speak a word to her. The others hardly talk to one another anyway. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Gervase, perhaps like the other residents of the manor, is under Paola’s mysterious charm. She’s not like the others. She doesn’t avoid confrontation with polite chitchat. She is blunt, says what she thinks and says plainly that she’s bored in this awful place.

When the family’s lawyer arrives to read the will, Paola unexpectedly becomes the sole heiress of the estate. Is it enough to change the family’s dynamics? Does it mean that she will accept her fate and stay in the valley? The end of the story is dark and offers an unexpected (rather surrealistic) twist.

Characters in the story are rather sketchy and the end seems rushed, not so much flawed but as if the writer was seized by a destructive rage. The characters and the place are all so negative that it’s difficult to make them all evolve. There’s definitely something amiss with the story, but I can’t point out what. I heard that Sackville-West has had deep family feuds about an estate, so perhaps she wanted to settle some scores in this story.

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