Buried Treasure

Karen Armstrong on Rebecca West's 'The Fountain Overflows'
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This novel about a musical Edwardian family has stayed with me since early adolescence. I was immediately inspired by the women characters of The Fountain Overflows, who not only resisted oppression and chauvinism, but who also, without a hint of priggishness, transcended the limitations of egotism by surrendering wholly to something greater than themselves. In their pursuit of musical excellence, they bear witness to "the hopeless and idiotic and divine desire of imperfect beings to achieve perfection." The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics) illustrates the impotence of undiluted rationalism when it confronts the horror of life, and the kinship of art and religion, which are both "about the parts of life that we do not understand". It gave me an early glimpse of a spirituality that had nothing to do with doctrinal orthodoxy but could be described as a moral aesthetic. As the narrator says of Claire, her mother, a brilliantly drawn character: "by simply existing... she conveyed a meaning of the sort that I found in music". The novel has not dated, because, like Claire, it flees the obvious and seizes passionately upon essentials. It also describes our ceaseless struggle against the forces of darkness with a wisdom we sorely need in our own benighted times.

Karen Armstrong's memoir 'The Spiral Staircase' is published by HarperCollins