Valerie Townsend Bayer’s Cult Classics: “City of Childhood,” “The Metaphysics of Sex,” and “Forbidden Objects” 

While I was reorganizing a bookcase in the mudroom, I came across Valerie Townsend Bayer’s novels, City of Childhood, The Metaphysics of Sex, and Forbidden Objects. 

“Surely these are  cult classics,” I told my husband.

“Never heard of them.”


 I can find nothing about the author online (no Wikipedia, no obituary). These were some of my favorite books of the ‘90s, though they are long out of print. And here’s a mystery:  they were described as volumes in The Marlborough Gardens Quartet,  but the fourth book was never published.  

Bayer delights in  complicated timelines and allusions to Victorian classics as well as to Greek and Latin classics.   Her novels have a Victorian atmosphere but also a meta-fictional playfulness. City of Childhood has been compared to A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and though Bayer’s style is simpler, both novels chart the scholar’s fascination with forgotten authors and their lost work.

In this trilogy that was supposed to be a quartet, two 1930s scholars, Harriet Van Buren, a meticulous American, and Rachel Lowe, a determined Englishwoman, are researching the life and work of Emily Forster, a radical, oft-rejected Victorian novelist who was ahead of her time in writing about sexuality.  She is the granddaughter of Jorem Forster, a wealthy banker who hired a  talented opium-addicted artist to metamorphose Marlborough Gardens into a magical Paradise .  Jorem ordered his  adult children to raise their families in grand houses across from the gardens, so they could appreciate the beauty. And Harriet and Lowe have moved into Emma’s childhood home to live in the atmosphere of the enormous house and walk daily through the now tangled, weedy, yet still beautiful gardens

This weekend I reread the first book, City of Childhood, a fascinating collection of documents, diary entries, letters, fairy tales, fragments of autobiography, and fragments of unpublished novels. I am also enjoying Harriet and Lowe’s commentary on the Forster family’s papers. They are as interested in the Forster family as Emma. And in the evenings they read aloud from Emma’s unpublished novels.  In Emma’s satire of Jane Eyre, Rochester has gone blind not from physical causes but from the trauma of losing his fiancee, Jane, to his mad wife, Bertha. The women have run away together.

Bayer has a deep knowledge of women’s classics, and there are many allusions to the Brontes’ Juvenilia and Jane Eyre.  The opening line of Emma’s unfinished childhood memoir,  City of Childhood, recalls the beginning of Rebecca.

Last night I dreamed I was a child again, that I had returned to Marlborough Gardens where, once upon a time, my cousins and I played while we were children.

Du Maurier’s opening lines are darker, but then Manderley was not really her home.: 

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

City of Childhood is set during Emma’s tenth year (1836-1937).  She is an unhappy child, an ugly girl loved only by her father.   T nightmarish upper-class The upper-class society separates the children from their parents: they are raised by nannies. Cruel Nanny Grindel is in charge of Emma and her two brothers: ahe jeers at them and  beats them but tells fascinating fairy tales.  Emma’s moments of freedom are in beautiful  Marlborough Gardens, playing with her cousins, looking at the statues of the gods and exploring the woods, the forest, the swamp, and the towers.

One day, their half-Italian cousin, Darius, is expelled for sodomy from Warrington school, and returns to Marlborough Gardens. At loose ends, he teaches his cousins the art of war, referring to Julius Caesar and Thucydides.   At first they act out the battles with toy soldiers, but then they form their own armies.

And the violence breaks out because of a misunderstanding.

The unusual structure of the book emphasizes both the chaos and the longing for order in the Forsters’ lives.  A fascinating novel, and I look forward to spending time with Emma the novelist and artistic Darius in Italy in the next book. (Or perhaps that’s the third book: we’ll see.)

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