The Fountain Overflows (1956)

by Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflows is Rebecca West's semi-autobiographical novel about a family whose eccentricity and poverty incongruously make childhood magical for three of the four children. Narrator Rose, her twin Mary, and their younger brother Richard Quin treasure idiosyncrasy as a badge of distinction.

Mamma explains to the others how they differ from their older sister, Cordelia:  "You have had a dreadful childhood, but you three . . . I think you have quite enjoyed it.  . . . But it has all been a torment to Cordelia. . . . It is not she who is odd in hating poverty and eccentricity. It is you who are odd in not hating them. Be thankful for this oddity, which has brought you safe through the years." 

Papa, a brilliant writer and political pamphleteer, is an unreliable provider. Having lost one job after another, and gambled away what little he earned, he settles the family into a house in a London suburb, where an admirer has hired him to edit a local newspaper. Despite his remarkable qualities, Papa doesn't redeem himself as a husband and father, and it is the less lustrous Mamma who holds the family together and whose foresight saves them from starvation.

But Mamma, a former concert pianist who gave up her career for her husband, is also eccentric, leaving people unsure of how to take her and putting all hope for her children's future on their becoming renowned musicians. The three youngest children have musical talent, but Cordelia does not. Much to the chagrin of her family, Cordelia not only will not won't admit the fact but is trying to use performing as an escape from home. 

Rose makes some realizations about her own musical abilities that hint that her future lies elsewhere. Indeed, Rebecca West (whose real name was Cicily Isabel Fairfield) came to fame as a writer. She wrote novels, literary criticism, and nonfiction and is admired as one of the foremost prose stylists of the 20th century.


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