Cullum by E Arnot Robertson

‘Cullum’ was Eileen Arbuthnot Robertson’s first novel, published in 1928 when she was just twenty-four years old. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing. Flawed, but still extraordinary. It was a great success, but it had a mixed recession. It was expected that women would write about love, in this case first love, but it was not expected that women – that anyone – would write about love quite like this.

CullumEsther Sieveking was nineteen and she lived with her father, a military man who had retired to the country to train horses, and her two much younger sisters. Her French mother had abandoned them to live in Paris, occasionally, imperiously, summoning them for visits. And so Esther grew up in genteel poverty and, with her mother absent and her father seeming emotionally detached from his children, little guidance.

She grew into a countrywoman, who lived for her horse and for the hunt, and when she wasn’t riding she was in the library, reading, or dreaming of becoming a writer.

It was no wonder she was smitten when she met Cullum Hayes, a twenty-four year old writer who had already met with success at a dinner party. And it was no wonder that he was intrigued by the confident, outspoken young woman, who said things not usually said – by young or old – at the dinner table.

Esther told her own story, looking back at time when she had gained wisdom but lost none of her passion. And she acknowledged at the very beginning that this story would not have a happy ending.

“Once the glamour has faded it is hard to give a clear impression of a man whom one has loved, as he appeared while the magic endured. Feeling loses so much of its life in the translation into words that one has to be still a little bound by the spell, still partly convinced at least, of the reality of the broken enchantment, in order to be convincing, and in retrospect it is difficult to see the figure in it’s old perspective, unaltered by the light of after-knowledge, and to realise where the charm lay. Yet, in a way I am still conscious of Cullum’s charm.”

The signs were there, that Cullum – who had a fiancé – was playing Esther. That he was taken by her, that he would take everything that she was willing to give, but that he would give her only as much as he had to, to keep her by his side.

The story of their relationship is written with such insight, such intelligence, and such extraordinary maturity. The dialogue is wonderful, and Esther’s voice rings utterly true.

“I knew that I loved Cullum, knew in my heart that he loved me, but I was not sure what I wanted to happen, or if, indeed, I wanted anything to happen that might alter existing conditions. To both of us just then, I think, love unexpressed but gloriously apparent seemed sufficient on itself. Certainly I did not want to marry Cullum. Marriage did not enter my head; the child of an unhappy union …”

He independence, her candour, were wonderful but I feared for her and I worried about what would happen to her, what future would be left for her when Cullum tired of her, when those qualities began to pall.

Esther was devastated when she realised that Cullum did not love her as she loved him. The way that she found out, and the extent of his disloyalty that she would discover in time, would have shocked even a more experienced woman. Her reaction was shocking, but it was entirely in character.

And then came the letter.

“His letter left me dazed for several days. I could not believe that Cullum had gone out of my life for ever, not that he was the contemptible romancer and cheat that life had suddenly proved him, I only knew that I wanted him. My mind recognised that he was worthless, my whole body was crying out for him; reason has no more power to recall love that to bestow it.”

After that the story fell away, with Esther’s voice muted as she just carried on. Until a rather melodramatic ending brought Cullum’s story to a firm conclusion.

It was a wonderful story, told with passion but with not an ounce of sentimentality.

The only real weakness I saw was the author’s inclination to shock. There are just one or two moments that jar in this book, but I know that others have found that shock tactics completely undermines some of her later work. Such a pity because she writes so well, and showed such great promise in this first novel.

Cullum himself I am happy to forget, but the book that bears his name and its distinctive, modern heroine have left their mark.

8 responses

  1. I’d never heard of this book, how interesting. I have quite a lot of VMCs left to go through (such a blissful prospect!) This seems like such a bold novel for 1928, especially this passage: ‘I was not sure what I wanted to happen [...]. Certainly I did not want to marry Cullum.’ Does she say anything about what her life was afterwards (I guess her present since she writes the story after it’s happened)?

  2. This is one of those VMCs that went out of print when the list was culled a few years ago. I can understand that, because it’s not a very commercial book, but it is a very good book and, as you say, bold for 1928.

    Esther is still a young woman when the book ends, living independently, but there’s no real indication of what might happen next. The focus is very much on Cullum and the effects he had on her life,

  3. I’ve never heard of this author! Virago has really done a wonderful job of keeping the work of authors like this alive – though it’s sad to read that this one has fallen out of print again. Hopefully there are still copies around.

    • She seems to be one of the less read VIrago authors – by all accounts she’s written some bad books too, and that may make potentail readers way – but don’t let that put you off reading her earlier, more autobiographical work.

    • It seems that she started well, but her negative traits over took her. Possibly she stated out drawing from life and went astray when she ran out of ideas too. I’d happily recommend this one, Rob has written a pretty positive review of ‘Ordinary Families’, but otherwise I’d be inclined to approach her books with caution.

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