“A large, creased, gray American, he began the minute he eventually arrived to describe to the assembled throng the state of his bowels, with which he had been having some trouble.”
Bachelor William Bone, a retired civil servant, has lived happily in the same Regency house opposite Richmond Park for 40 years. William, after purchasing the house finally a few years ago, has spent a lot of energy carefully renovating it, and now it’s perfect. The house is divided into three flats with William living on the top floor flat, while Agnes Joliffe, a widow and an acquaintance for over 50 years lives, as his tenant, in the ground floor flat. The middle flat is finished but empty.
William and Agnes get along well, but some tension exists between them. This is mostly manifested in the way Agnes teases William about his cleaner, his routines and his belief system. Autocratic and critical, Agnes is the sort of woman who “had been born to have servants,” and she terrifies everyone–including her lumpish, unattractive daughter, Germaine.
Germaine was one of life’s visitors–as far as her mother was concerned there was no permanent place for her anywhere. She flitted. The jobs she had had were endless and not a decent one among them. She had not had the brains to go to university, easy though it now was compared to Mrs. Joliffe’s day, but she could at least have trained herself for some worthwhile auxiliary profession. Nor had her personal life been any more commendable. Unmarried till the age of thirty-two, she had then married a Hungarian refugee who upped and went back to Hungary three weeks later. Farcical. Quickly she had taken up with an elderly insurance clerk, who had in due course married her, then stepped in front of a tube train at Mornington Crescent. Apparently he had been wearing bifocal spectacles for the first time or something ridiculous. Then there had been Homer.
Agnes, a widow after just two years of marriage, loved William and at one time expected to marry him, but William, who has a terrible fear of love, sex, and commitment, has always managed to keep Agnes (and the world) at arm’s length. William is a creature of habit, and his solitary life is one of ordered routine with “normal activities which he loved so much that even a day away grieved him.” People tend to bully William, and that includes his housekeeper, so perhaps it’s just as well that he has no intimate relationships. He’s long since made peace with his choices.
Other people oppressed him if he had to put up with them more than half an hour-a discovery that had made him sad when he was young but was now his strength.
William only has one friend, Pullen, William’s architect, a dreadful bully who terrorises his secretaries. Every time William goes to Pullen’s office, there’s a new secretary, usually in tears. When it comes to employees, Pullen’s “turnover was impressive.” Not only does he shout, bully and deride, he also dangles one leg over his chair in a way that “called attention to his bulging crotch.” Pullen is rather cruel to William, but William never seems to get it, or perhaps Pullen’s barbs don’t trouble William–a man who seems very comfortable with his life.
The sport lay in the vicious teasing Pullen gave William. He teased him, nastily, about everything. He teased about sex, pretending William was a well-known poof, or about Mrs. Joliffe, pretending she was his mistress. He teased him about his running, pretending he ran in the park only to rape young girls and not to keep fit.
So here is William in his late 60s, a fussy man whose spartan routine means everything, a slippery man who has avoided commitment and messy emotional entanglements. One Christmas Eve, a young couple, Alex and the very pregnant Sophie, show up on William’s doorstep, attracted by the glimpse of an empty flat. William, driven by manners and politeness, allows the couple to stay the night, and then gradually, Sophie, talks William into allowing them to rent the flat…
A gentle comedy ensues from William’s fateful decision. He loathes noise and mess, has very strict rules for cleaning common areas and using the bathroom (no using the toilet after ten at night,) and communicates through letters and notes in order to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile Alex, Sophie’s unemployed artist boyfriend who has no understanding of responsibility or manners, tramples all over William’s ‘rules.’ This situation rapidly becomes untenable for William, but he’s torn between avoidance and good, responsible behaviour–two dominant aspects of his character.
When I first came across Mr Bone’s Retreat, I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the book as I tend to become annoyed with passive or door-mat characters. But William is anything but passive. Alex’s bad behaviour spurs a frenzy of letter writing as William tries to reel in his tenants. Mrs. Joliffe, of course, becomes involved. On one hand she befriends Sophie, and on the other, she pushes William to do something about the situation before a baby breaks the formerly peaceful routine at the house. And of course, before too long, William, who has a lifelong avoidance of relationships finds that he has two women dependent on him.
This is my second Margaret Forster novel. The first was The Unknown Bridesmaid which I loved. Both novels are intense character studies–although Mr Bone’s Retreat is rather comic as we see William struggle with conflicting values. There’s a sadness to the unrequited love affair between Agnes Joliffe and William–although by the end of the book it seems as though William probably did the right thing in avoiding marriage to the domineering Agnes. Sophie acts as a catalyst in the novel, shaking up Agnes and William’s lives, telling Agnes some painful truths, and illuminating William’s generosity long hidden under his fussy, obsessive routines.