Footprint Upon Water, by Barbara Fitzgerald
A reprinted Big House novel from a sorely overlooked Irish writer has a new relevance
Footprint Upon Water
When Barbara Fitzgerald’s debut novel, We Are Besieged , was first published in 1946 it became a Book Society recommendation. With the novel’s reprint in 2011, Mary Kenny claimed it to be “one of the most engaging books I have read this year”. Fitzgerald’s second novel was published in 1983, a year after the writer’s death, and is now reprinted by Somerville Press.
In Footprint Upon Water , Susan Fellowes, orphaned at a young age, lives with her aunts and grandfather Captain Fellowes at Fellowescourt, a big house on the edge of the fictional village of Glenmacool, outside Cork city. After Captain Fellowes dies, the women of the house are shocked to learn of the depletion of the family fortune: the captain accrued substantial debts (he is suspected of having had a secret life of gambling, drinking, womanising), prompting the family’s solicitor to recommend the sale of Fellowescourt. Filling her father’s shoes is Katherine, given the moniker “the Pope” by Susan’s governess because “a Pope’s a quare one as is always right . . . and likes to put everyone else right the way he is himself . . . he has a kind of notion he can speak for God”, a despotic character with room in her heart only for the local rector, Mr Weldon.
“The Pope” decides not to sell Fellowescourt but to follow a regimen of extreme thrift and self-sufficiency. This decision ultimately alters the course of all the characters’ lives. Set on the eve of the first World War and ending just after the second, the book spans four decades, and is told from the perspective (largely) of Katherine and Susan. Katherine is passionate, proud and cruel; in the evenings she kneels by her prie-dieu and “flagellates herself in prayer”. “The Pope” refuses to see beauty in anything and possesses a kind of sadistic religious fervour that grows more perverse with age.
Susan, who Katherine tries to mould in her own image, “a cornflour shape of herself” – and who will grow to look just like her – is Katherine’s antithesis: soft-hearted, kind, nature-loving, though she becomes, in time, just as repressed as her aunt.
Her other aunts, Charlotte, Daisy and the beautiful Olivia, make life at Fellowescourt bearable for Susan, but as Katherine becomes more embittered by her drudgery and sacrifices (she plunders her wedding fund to send Susan to school), Susan becomes Katherine’s chief target for her abuse (emotional and psychological).
When Katherine apprehends Susan in the act of bringing food to Barry, Susan’s childhood friend now fighting for “the Irregulars” in the Civil War and hiding in the mountains, she chastises her niece, cruelly. Susan, believing Katherine responsible for Barry’s subsequent capture and death, leaves for London, never to lay eyes upon Katherine again. Years later, Susan returns to Glenmacool, where she makes some uncomfortable discoveries (she learns of the many sacrifices Katherine had made for her, and that her aunt had had a peculiar love for her, after all) and begins a relationship herself with Mr – now Canon – Weldon.
In this exquisite Big House novel, Fitzgerald explores the theme of power – and its abuse. Prevented by her father from marrying Mr Weldon, Katherine learns to bend her will and repress her desires, and so is well-placed to enact similar controls upon those in her charge, namely Susan, though she dominates her sisters, too. She does so in the name of love, duty and godliness.
Katherine lives in a seminal age, is witness to two world wars, the rebellion of 1916, the Irish Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and yet she attempts to shut out from her life, and from Fellowescourt, the changes wrought from these events. In her efforts to create order, Katherine creates instead enormous pain and chaos, so that by the novel’s coda we encounter Susan in a flat in London, a mousey, unassertive spinster of 42 years, in love with her cold, distant employer and fearful of decision-making.
Fitzgerald explores how human beings, in their attempts to control each other, are in danger of committing grave abuses and lasting damage. In a more political reading of the novel, if Katherine Fellowes is representative of the religious and colonial domination of Ireland, then Susan becomes the nation itself, lurching, damaged and uncertain, towards modernity. This central relationship of the novel, between Susan and Katherine, is brilliantly delineated, has something of the master-victim dynamic of sadomasochism, and is the lynchpin of the piece.
Fitzgerald’s prose is authoritative and rhythmically stunning. She does not adhere to the credo of her fellow Anglo-Irish Big House novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, that the novel is “a non-poetic statement of a poetic truth”. Rather, Footprint Upon Water is, at times, an intensely poetic statement. Rich and sensual sentences abound, especially in Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the topography around Fellowescourt: “Susan rolled over and looked into the blue of the sky and the now resplendent sun, one eye shut and the other the merest slit, but the piercing brilliance stabbed at her and she turned back until she was looking into the silver-floored water on the shore side of her rock.”
The novel’s real triumph is character. Barbara Fitzgerald’s unsentimental portrait of life during this formative time in Irish history is peopled with vividly depicted figures, and in Katherine Fellowes she has created one of fiction’s most unforgettable anti-heroines. Fellowescourt is described with forensic detail, from the coat-stand in the hall overflowing with garments belonging to family members long since dead, to the loudly ticking clock, to Olivia’s pink parasol that falls towards the fenders when, at the end of the novel, Susan explores the attic.
Fitzgerald’s second novel becomes, perhaps, newly relevant with this reprint in the light of yet further reports of abuses of (religious) power in Ireland. It is an underappreciated gem from a writer who has been sorely overlooked.
Jaki McCarrick’s debut collection of short fiction, The Scattering , is published by Seren Books.