The main theme in this novel is Monica Gall's development as a performing artist. In Salterton, Monica has not known many people in the arts. Her main influence has been her Aunt Ellen, organist at a small Baptist church for over twenty-five years. Aunt Ellen and Monica listen to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, look at pictures of the great singers of the turn of the century in The Victor Book of the Opera, and read sentimental fiction like Jessie Fothergill's The First Violin, which is about a young woman with a beautiful voice whose singing teacher is "daemonic" and whose lover (a violinist in an orchestra) turns out to be a nobleman in the end. When Monica receives the scholarship, Aunt Ellen tells her to become "a great artist," someone who is always "simple and fine" and loves everything that is "sweet in life," This definition reflects Aunt Ellen's life, for Aunt Ellen is simple, sweet, and fine, but it has little to do with being an artist. It is soon destroyed by Sir Benedict Domdaniel, the conductor who becomes Monica's mentor in London. Monica tells Domdaniel that she wants to be an artist because "it makes you a fine person and you can help other people" by enriching their lives and making them better. Domdaniel scoffs at this notion of refinement. He tells her that being refined means being "predictable, stable, controlled, always choosing the smallest cake on the plate, never breaking wind audibly, being a good loser — in a word, dead." Domdaniel divides the world into two parties: "the people who are for life, and the people who are against it," the followers of Eros and Thanatos respectively. According to Domdaniel, Monica has been raised in the halls of Thanatos; she is "all buttoned up, vocally and spiritually." He thinks that Monica's training will show whether she may really belong to the Eros party. In what follows, Davies slights the technical aspect of Monica's training and concentrates on the encounters that make her a follower of Eros.
Her two main teachers are Murtagh Molloy, who teaches her voice and interpretation, and Giles Revelstoke, a composer who teaches her about the music she performs. At her first lessons with both men, they ask her to sing Tosti's "Good-Bye!" After her rendition, Molloy demonstrates how the song should be sung, and Monica is startled by the intensity of his performance. Molloy tells her that he focuses on the mood of a piece, not on individual expressive effects of phrasing. Revelstoke's approach to the song is more literary. He analyzes the text of the poem and the way the composer has set it. By the time he is finished, "Good-Bye!" is not simply a sentimental parlor song about parting. In "a hundred or so bars of music," Whyte-Melville (the poet) and Tosti have captured the anguish of impotence, which is seen as a problem of advancing age, "an intimation of mortality." Revelstoke's sessions are intended to make Monica think about the music she performs, but not necessarily in an analytical way. As he explains at a later lesson, he is not educating Monica in a conventional way: "Formal education" makes "critics, not artists. Its usual effect is to cage the spirit in other people's ideas...
(The entire section is 1306 words.)