Moscow circa March, 1913 -so although the characters can’t know it, World War I and then the Revolution is only a year away. What they do know is there is unrest in the city. There is the student unrest, the labor strikes and even some activity in the at the print shop which the Englishman Frank Reid owns and operates. There is a spiritual revival going on which includes Tolstoy and his ideas. And more than that, it’s the week of Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent – the most important holiday in the Russian Orthodox religion.
The Beginning of Spring
by Penelope Fitzgerald
1998/ 272 pages
Rating: 9.2 / historical fiction
I’m reading this for the second time and I have some different impressions – that happens with good books and multiple readings. First, although there’s a lot of seriousness going on, it’s really funny at times – I laughed out loud. Also, it seems like a good deal of research must have gone into the project – there’s an authentic feel to it.
The story concerns Frank Reid, an English print shop owner in Moscow who is married and they have three very individualized children. One early spring day his English wife takes the children and leaves him but sends the children back. Within the next few days Frank hires a replacement – a lovely young native Russian woman named Lisa. There are several characters adding interest – Selwyn Crane who is deeply spiritual and always knows and does what is morally correct, a chaplain’s wife who suggests an unlikely governess, the strange unlikely governess herself, a business acquaintance of Frank’s who is rather down-scale from Frank and somewhat of a rowdy status-seeker, a student who breaks into the print shop, a couple more employees, etc. All of the characters are a somewhat mysterious but Selwyn, Nellie Reid, Lisa and the student are actually secretive.
Can we ever really know anyone? These characters are incredibly well articulated and still mysterious – as is Russia.
The history is meticulously researched and never over-played. There’s a real feeling of authenticity – I suppose it’s in the details.
A major theme may be the ways we keep track of time. From following minute train schedules to the birches in various seasons – natural measuring vs man-made measuring.
In 1913 in Moscow, Easter was celebrated on March 25 using the Julian Calendar because Russia did not convert to the new Gregorian calendar until 1918. Most of the West was using the Gregorian Calendar by then and their date for Easter was April 7. (It was on the same day but the Russians called it something other than what the West called it.)
Frank Reid – the young English owner of Reid’s Press in Moscow
Nellie Reid – his English wife – bourgeois
Dolly Reid – the eldest child – precocious and a bit bossy
Ben Reid – younger brother
Annushka – youngest girl
Grace Cooper – Nellie’s mother
Charlie Cooper – Nellie’s brother
Yacob Tvyordov – compositor in the print shop
Korobyev – a worker who keeps track of dues and fines
Selwyn Crane (Osipych) – Reid’s assistant, intellectual and spiritual – a Tolstoy fan
Toma – Frank’s servant
Dunyasha – the children’s governess
Kuriatin – Frank’s 2nd grade business acquaintance – house of bears and children
Mitya Kuriatin – daughter
Masha – son – hell raisers
bear – in Kuriatin home
Mrs Graham – Chaplain’s wife –
Muriel Kinsman – friend of Mrs Graham, seeks job as governess
Reverend Edwin Graham – Mrs Graham’s husband, chaplain –
Lisa Ivanova – Selwyn’s friend, needs a job, beautiful
Bernov – 2nd accountant at Reid’s –
Volodya Vasilych – student who breaks in to Reid’s
Guilanin – Reid’s watchman.
The years around 1913 were a time of material changes, like telephones and automobiles and light bulbs – even a Singer sewing machine – and spring has more changes so people go to their dachas to be with the seasons and nature. In a longer view, the Bolshevik Revolution is coming in 1917 along with the Gregorian Calendar in 1918 – there were 13 days lost or skipped when the new calendar was implemented. There are other ideas in the book – religion comes up a fair amount. and in the end the windows are thrown open and Nellie comes back. Like Spring returns.
So what occurs in the book is just before the but also Shrove Tuesday and the railway schedules – the Lvov children’s timetable. Time for vespers, “quickest at that time,
Nellie Reid is quite a mysterious character – she’s afraid others know something she doesn’t and she has to find out. Fitzgerald is never explicit about the sex – or about several things. There is so much under the surface here – and it’s left open for the reader to respond to – to conclude about.
Birch trees are huge symbols in the book. Selwyn writes a whole book about the thoughts of these trees. They are survivors of winter – as are some of our characters. – And birch bark is sometimes used for writing – in Russia the birch symbolizes new growth (which is nice for Easter, too).
We never find out a lot of things in this book but I figure that Nellie took off because “nobody was going to get the better of her.” She wanted to know what Selwyn was talking about – the mystical experience of Russia. Selwyn might think she wanted to meet with him for a sexual tryst but I doubt it – that doesn’t seem like Nellie.
And what was Lisa doing with the trees at the dacha? –
The whole thing is like a Russian shell doll where one story is nestled inside another inside yet another – and you have to remember that Russia was described by Winston Churchill as being “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery and inside an enigma.”
Did Lisa and the student have something going on? – Where did Lisa go?