Zella Sees Herself

Date of publication
William Heinemann
Published reviews
The Scotsman, 12 March 2017 Manchester Guardian, 13 April 2017
Zella (Gisèle de Kervoyou) is seven in the Prologue, in which she quarrels with her cousins and steals chocolates from the dining room; confessing this to her mother, she is immediately forgiven, since she has told the truth. Zella has French ancestry, her father Louis is the son of an aristocratic Huguenot who married an Englishwoman, and her mother Esmee English. Louis's mother died when he was little and his stepmother, Gisèle de la Claudière de Marincourt, now the Baronne de Kervoyou, a poor member of the Catholic French nobility, brought him up after his father died when Louis was five. Louis has a half-sister, Stephanie, brought up Catholic; the Baronne undertook not to attempt to change Louis's Protestant faith. At the beginning of the novel proper, Zella is fourteen and her mother has died suddenly. Zella is distraught and her father composed, if very sad; he attempts to contain Zella's emotionalism by explaining that her mother is no longer housed in her body. Aunt Marianne, Esmee's mother, comes to stay; very conventional, she arranges Zella's mourning clothes and criticises the rather plain arrangements Louis has made for the funeral. She suggests that Zella should see her mother's body before the coffin is closed, but Louis will not allow this. A compromise is agreed that Zella should say goodbye to her mother's coffin before it leaves the house. Zella is taken to do this, and encouraged by Aunt Marianne to pray, but as she cannot pray for her mother to come back, she is unable to connect with the experience of saying goodbye; everything seems very unreal. Sent back to her room to rest, she escapes from the emotional strain by reading Treasure Island. Marianne and Lewis disagree over whether Zella is to come to the funeral; Louis is against it, suggesting it will involve "false sentiment", and Zella, unsure who to obey, agrees not to go. Marianne encourages Zella to go to her father to comfort him with the solace of prayer; Zella, unaccustomed to considerations of religion, does so, but is firmly rejected and consequently humiliated. After the funeral Zella is sent to stay with her aunt and cousins. Zella gets on better with her older cousin James, who has inclinations towards being a free thinker; she likes to think of her younger cousin Muriel as priggish and stupid, but is annoyed to find that Muriel, who has had a governess for longer, is better at her lessons than Zella. Aunt Marianne is sentimentally pious and vehemently anti-Catholic; Zella manages to offend her by failing to possess a prayer-book and making a show of searching for this non-existent item before Church one Sunday. Zella tries to propitiate her hosts by agreeing with whatever they say, but as they are somewhat at odds with each other, this is unsuccessful. Bored and unhappy, Zella writes to her father to ask if she can come home. Aunt Marianne, who has expected to be able to bring up Zella, is dismayed by Louis' sudden visit and departure with Zella, doubly so because they will be going to visit his stepmother who is wintering in Rome. In Rome, Zella is shown the sights by her Tante Stéphanie, who is devoted both to her faith and to classical art; her taste does not impose itself fully on Zella, who continues to find the Victor Emmanuele monument the most beautiful thing in the city. The Baronne encourages her to stick to her own opinions, and not be swayed by others' taste. The Baronne's motto is Ce ne se fait pas, that is not done; after an emotional Christmas midnight mass, Zella confronts her father with her unhappiness at never being able to speak of her mother. Louis invokes the Baronne's motto and explains that he has not discussed Esmée with her because he does not wish her to give way to violent emotions. Discussing Zella with his stepmother, he is advised to send Zella to school; this would be better for her than solitude at Villetswood or a further stay with her aunt Marianne. Zella is pleased with this idea, and the family departs for Paris. Aunt Marianne, on learning the news, becomes ever more fearful that Zella will be converted to Catholicism, and decides to go to Paris to try to persuade the Baronne not to "tamper with the faith of an innocent child" (90). Marianne confronts the Baronne and attempts to discover whether she has influenced her stepson's choice, but the Baronne avoids this question, and suggests that Marianne need only worry if Zella's own faith has a light hold upon her. The argument that Zella should go to a good school and be properly educated is also dismissed, as the Baronne suggests that, in Zella's world, such an education will not be required; she also makes it plain that Zella will make friends of the right sort just as well at a convent. A convent is found for Zella, and her father leaves her there with the promise that she can come home again if she is unhappy. At first the convent is noisy and uncomfortable for Zella and she feels out of place among the Catholic schoolgirls, but begins to learn how the society of the school operates and to blend in better. Emotionally affected by the beauty of church services, a public display of weeping wins her a private interview with the Reverend Mother, at which Zella presents herself as approaching a possible conversion to Catholicism. Zella is frustrated because she cannot make a close friend at the convent; intimacies are discouraged and she still finds aspects of convent life incomprehensible, as when the girls are encouraged to make acts to celebrate Reverend Mother's feast-day. Zella's attempt at self-mortification using marbles in her shoes is soundly mocked. Zella is inwardly critical of some of her fellow schoolgirl's religious behaviour, but never voices this. She is also behind at her lessons, and begins to lose her estimation of herself as clever. Her efforts to blend in, when she does not share the beliefs of the convent, make her more of a poseuse than ever, and she is annoyed to discover that the nuns perceive this. A nascent friendship with an older girl, Kathleen, is crushed when Zella offers her the money she receives from her father on her birthday, and is sharply rejected. In her penultimate year at the convent Zella joins in the school retreat, and afterwards writes to ask her father if he would mind her becoming a Catholic. He suggests that she rethink her decision outside the convent atmosphere, but Zella is determined to make her conversion at the school, and does so, to the great distress of her aunt Marianne, who now fears that she will become a nun. Louis quashes that supposition. For the convert, school becomes a more real place, and Zella finds her life there easier, but is still worried by her lack of friends among the girls, and specifically their failure to place her at the central figure in their small society. Zella does begin to think of becoming a nun, dramatising the sacrifices that she would be required to make, but Reverend Mother does not take her possible vocation very seriously. Zella leaves school with something of an anticlimax after a term of emotional farewells and guidance on living a catholic life in the outside world. Her father meets her in London with the presents of a maid of her own and some Paris dresses given by her aunt. Zella's cousin Muriel becomes engaged, and Zella is invited to be a bridesmaid. Arriving for the wedding, she is shocked to find the young couple engaged in hearty banter, and she mocks them with James, who points out that they are happy in the way and to the extent of which they are capable. After the wedding, though, Zella and James agree that they found the ceremony barbaric. At the reception, Louis meets an old friende, Cecily St Craye, and her daughter Alison, a young woman set against convention; both take a fancy to Zella and invite her to visit them. Aunt Marianne is annoyed by this and characterises Cecily as a butterfly and Alison as pretentious. Zella makes her visit, and is somewhat intimidated by Alison. James joins them for a theatre party and supper, and teases Alison about the depth of her professed commitment to Theosophy, which does not extend to vegetarianism or membership of the Theosophist Society; James effectively punctures Zella's admiration for Alison. The Baronne dies after a short illness; Zella is not seriously grieved. Her father does not take her to Paris for the funeral, and she remains with the St Crayes where she is visited and ineffectively comforted by Aunt Marianne, who quarrels with Alison over the nature of death. After lunch Zella receives a telegram from her father asking whether Tante Stéphanie should be invited to live at Villetswood. Zella is not enthusiastic, but, given the opportunity of making a generous sacrifice in front of Aunt Marianne, agrees to the invitation. Tante Stéphanie arrives at Villetswood and settles in well without usurping Zella's position as lady of the house. At home, with agreeable companionship from her father and aunt, Zella is bored. Her efforts at poetry are dismissed by Alison St Craye. She starts to write a novel, which Tante Stéphanie finds very sad, sets it aside and devotes herself to the piano, learning pieces by modern composers. James comes to visit, but is not drawn to admire Zella's playing, preferring tennis. Aunt Marianne, considering Zella's opportunities to find suitors, persuades Louis to host a house-party at Villetswood. James and Alison are invited and also Stephen Pontisbury, a suitable young man for Zella. Louis and Stéphanie agree that Zella is not ready for marriage yet. Zella attempts to prepare herself to attract Stephen, who tells her of the unhappieness of his childhood, and sympathises with him in vague terms; Stephen confesses that he has had an affair with an older, married woman. James finds him superficial, but Aunt Marianne encourages Zella's interest in him. She spoils her point, however, by suggesting Zella return to the Church of England after her putative marriage. Zella considers marriage with Stephen; she is attracted by the attention that the engagement and wedding will bring; less so by an intimate relationship with him, but is convinced that he loves her and intends to accept him and escape her aunt's view of her as young and inexperienced. The party climaxes in a fancy-dress evening for Zella's birthday; Zella puts off dancing with Stephen, afraid of precipitating a proposal. James (dressed as a cardinal) tells her that she and Stephen are unsuited and would make each other unhappy. Zella confesses that "nothing is real to me" (294) and that she is only playing at any of the acts or emotions she has ever tried. James suggests this is because she wants to be loved, but Zella is convinced that the real her is unlovable. James suggests that she can be sincere with him, and her father, and could be with others if she had more courage.
Catholicism authenticity bereavement education novel