“It’s the difference between leading a Jane Austen life and a Tolstoy one.”
Emmanuel Joyce, a famous playwright, half-Irish, half Jewish, his fragile, much younger wife, Lillian, and their faithful ‘fixer,’ Jimmy all live together in various hotels and travel back and forth between Britain and America. Their lives are intertwined in the production of plays-although Lillian, whose only child died decades earlier, isn’t sure just what her purpose is any more. They live out of suitcases, and plunge into social lives in New York and London, and Lillian “whose active ambivalence about Emmanuel’s work nearly drove him crazy at times” actively ignores her husband’s many affairs. Even though this is a pathological situation, the dynamic between the three characters works successfully. Emmanuel alternates between longing for solitude and treating his chronic invalid wife like a china doll, and it’s Jimmy’s multi-tasking job to squire Lillian around when she’s dumped into his hands. Everyone gets along, the system works, but no one ever addresses the pathological aspects of this threesome.
But things shift after a dramatic, unsuccessful suicide attempt by Emmanuel’s secretary and latest mistress. After the event, Lillian employs, on impulse, a young girl who will accompany them to New York. This young woman, Sarah, has the same name as Lillian’s dead child, and so Emmanuel asks her to call herself Alberta, just to make things easier.
‘Alberta’ comes from a large, closely knit, eccentric country family, and she’s the daughter of a vicar. A character who really belongs in a Jane Austen novel, she’s a unique, unpretentious, disarming combination of naiveté and sagaciousness. To work as a secretary for a famous playwright seems a fabulous opportunity, but given the fate of the last secretary, it’s clear that Alberta could unwittingly bring serious trouble into the Joyces’ lives. She’s certainly a catalyst for change.
The story unfolds through four narrative voices: Emmanuel, Lillian, Jimmy and Alberta–with the latter’s story partly told by long letters home. These shifting voices give the story grace, dimension and interest. We first see Lillian through the eyes of Jimmy; she seems high-maintenance and he calls her a bitch, and yet when we hear Lillian’s voice we discover she has hidden depths of sensitivity. Emmanuel, who at first seems all ego and bombastic self-interest is shown to be a self-made man, inspired by his drunken, brutal father whose poetic, self-pitying rants spiked and became dramatic performances during his drinking binges.
But his father lurched and jabbered on; charged with disastrous vitality-bored by everything but his own imagination of himself and haunted by all the chances he might have had.
The character of Alberta, who is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant lives of the Joyces, is an absolute delight. She has a delicious sense of honesty and loves to repeat pronouncements from various eccentric relatives. Lillian is terrified that Alberta will become Emmanuel’s next mistress, and yet she can’t help really liking the girl. Emmanuel finds himself inspired and renewed by Alberta, and Jimmy… well Jimmy’s a bit of a cipher–even to himself.
Here’s a taste of Alberta’s spirit in this quote taken from a letter she writes home:
Then we had an extraordinary picnic lunch in an office with two men who had been at the auditions. They just ate yoghourt because they were dieting, but they talked about what they would have liked for lunch all the time we were eating ours, until I must say that it got quite difficult and hardhearted to go on eating it.
I recently read and reviewed Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View— another look at a stagnant marriage, but of the two novels, I much preferred The Sea Change for its generous look at human nature, and the subtle way, through the various narratives, we are reminded that we all have private sorrows.