Tag Archives: British fiction

An Imaginative Experience: Mary Wesley

While Mary Wesley’s novel An Imaginative Experience centres on two damaged people: Sylvester and Julia, there are other lost and lonely characters: Rebecca and Maurice who circle into Sylvester and Julia’s orbit in a somewhat vampirish fashion. Sylvester is decompressing from his unhappy marriage to Celia–a dreadful woman who has left Sylvester in order to remarry a former husband who has recently become much more affluent. Sylvester and Celia’s marriage was toxic, and Sylvester finds himself emotionally drained. Just as he’s trying to heal, Celia raids Sylvester’s home yet again to carry off loot–items to replace the ones she already took. As readers, we never meet Celia, but we have a solid idea of her character.

Similarly, we never meet Julia’s dead husband Giles–a man who could charm his way through life. Giles was living with Julia’s vile mother, Clodagh, supposedly writing a book while Clodagh footed the bills. After Clodagh broke a leg, Julia came to nurse her mother, was raped by Giles and ended up pregnant. The result was Christy, a little boy who went back and forth between his father and Julia’s house. When the book opens, Giles, who was drunk driving, had an accident which killed both father and son.

So here are the two damaged people–Sylvester and Julia–who connect in a situation involving a sheep. Former policeman, past PI Maurice, now a birdwatcher and nosy parker, begins spying on both Julia and Sylvester. Also in the loop is Rebecca, Sylvester’s pushy overly efficient, former secretary. There are not many characters in this novel, but they can be divided into two camps, the kind and the heartless. The nice people are definitely outweighed by their unpleasant counterparts. Maurice and Rebecca, who have no lives of their own (and I wonder why not???) spend a terrific amount of energy soaking up the details of Sylvester and Julia’s lives. Julia’s story, which should make the average person feel sympathy, only spurs Maurice into cruelty. The book shows the worst and the best of human nature. Kindness goes a long way and how unfortunate that so few of us can show a little kindness when it’s most needed.

The America section seemed over the top to this reader. I didn’t really ‘get’ the character of Julia–a self-punishing woman who married her rapist and nursed her dreadful mother. Similarly, Sylvester was too vanilla for my interest. This is the second Mary Wesley novel I’ve read and I would rate this below A Dubious Legacy.

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What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward


“What she wanted to say was-no one is entitled to that much privacy, in a marriage. You can have your separate space, your study, your notebooks, but you can’t have places from which I’m totally banned. I don’t care if you are a writer, I have a right to know what you’re doing in here. I have a right to see the evidence. What other type of man would claim such privilege? Not even the obsessive railway modellers or woodworkers would shut their wives out completely. But this claim to artistic privacy put Arnold-it came to Polly in a sudden flash of unwanted inspiration-in the same category as the husbands who mined new cellarage beneath their houses and lived secret lives there.”

Gerard Woodward’s The Paper Lovers takes a different approach to the subject of infidelity and its fallout in the lives of two married couples, through the lens of religion. Examined here: the necessity of shared values in marriage and possibly the most difficult area of negotiation–the geography of the couple vs. the individual. Arnold Proctor, poet and professor is happily married to Polly. They have one child together and lead an ordered life of shared values. Polly, a one-time publishing house employee now runs a shop called Papyrus and here she makes and sells paper. Occasionally Polly and her husband select poetry to be published by Papyrus, and for each project, Polly makes a special run of paper that complements the poetry in some fashion.

Since Polly has an artistic bent, it’s not too surprising when she hauls out a previously unused sewing machine one day. This leads to an organised sewing evening attended by many other women. Arnold’s presence isn’t exactly welcomed, but it’s during one of these evenings that he notices the alluring scent of one of the women–it’s Vera, a woman he’s overlooked in the past. Married Vera also has an only daughter, Irina, and Irina and Evelyn attend the same school and are the best of friends. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera, and he’s particularly curious that she’s religious. Evelyn’s relationship with Irina allows Arnold to circle around Vera, observe her, and he imagines that her religious beliefs somehow protect him from going any further.

After a few minor social interactions with Arnold exchanging just a few words with Vera, the day arrives when Arnold plans to pick up Evelyn at Vera’s house. There’s some unspoken understanding between him and Vera. With the children watching the conclusion of a DVD for the next 10 minutes, Vera leads Arnold to bed. Then Vera surprises Arnold by rather abruptly arranging sexual assignations. These are conducted at Vera’s home, squashed in between her domestic duties and her runs to pick up her children.

She explained that she was only free during a narrow window in the early afternoon or morning, depending on when her youngest child was at nursery. The hours were 8:30 till 11:45 on Tuesdays, 1:15 till 2:45 on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

She pencils Arnold in with the proficient efficiency of a Madam, and it’s just sex. Vera’s not interested in talking or getting to know Arnold. She wants no nonsense sex with no strings.

The few times Arnold did try to talk, she hushed him quiet, smilingly laying a finger on his lips, as if urging him not to break the precious spell. At first he found this conversational absence a relief. Their relationship was freed from the pleasure of language. But as the weeks went on, he began to worry that their affair existed only for the slaking of Vera’s sexual thirst.

Really, this should be ideal for Arnold who still professes to be happily married, but Vera’s approach bothers him. He can’t align her actions with her religious beliefs. What is he missing here? Shouldn’t she be feeling guilty?

Shared values are imperative in marriage and equivalent relationships, but not so significant when it comes to affairs. Indeed, many an affair is conducted with wildly unsuitable partners and there’s a long list of explanations for that. The idea of shared values appears subtly throughout the novel; at one point, for example Polly visits her parents who berate her for her ‘silly’ profession, asking her how she on earth could “she hope to compete with the likes of WH Smith.” During a visit home, Polly realises the underlying thread in her parents’ lives is the supreme importance of money:

It was all to do with money. Nothing that came into their lives or came out of it did so on anything other than a river of cash.

Of course, Arnold’s tidily conducted affair gets messy, but with religion involved, the plot takes off in ways I didn’t predict. The first half of the book focuses on Arnold, and while his ‘dilemma’ remains at the fore, the novel shifts focus to Polly and her growing consternation at Arnold’s behaviour. Yes, there are many ways to betray your partner as Polly finds out.

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Mrs Martell: Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

“There ought to be a law against women like her.”

Elizabeth Eliot’s novel Mrs Martell is the study of a self-focused, vain, shallow woman who gets by on her looks and her studied charm. With an overly indulgent mother (and a wealthy disapproving aunt who foots the bills) Cathie grows up with an inflated view of herself. With women as “her natural enemies,” Cathie finds that her relationships with men “were also inclined not to last.” Although Cathie “never considered” a man who was not “completely bowled over,” these relationships went through very specific phases until “the man got sick of it.” Fancy that. … When, at age 24, she met Maurice Martell, “she had begun to be afraid that perhaps she was losing her flair.” She aggressively snared Maurice. He quickly seemed too insignificant, too uninteresting and too dull, and WWII opened the floodgates for affairs. Always considering herself above her circumstances, somehow the wonderful future Cathie imagined for herself never materialized. She has learned a few tricks however; in society, she has honed her behaviour and mannerisms to glossy perfection–so much so that she even knows just how to position her hip for photographs.

When the book opens, now at age 38, Cathie, divorced and living in a London flat above an antique shop, is desperately trying to seduce Edward, the husband of one of Cathie’s distant cousins, Laura. Cathie was unaware of Laura’s existence, but after Laura’s marriage to the very affluent Edward, Cathie wheedles her way into their lives, making herself “useful.” She cultivates Laura, and “advised her about clothes and about soft furnishings.” But she takes a different approach with Edward, and seeds poison into the marriage, indicating that Laura is somehow inadequate for her role as mistress of Abbotsmere:

How sad it was that Laura, partly due to her rather secluded upbringing and partly due to the war, should have so few friends.

Edward and Cathie have a relationship–so far unconsummated–but Cathie has her hooks firmly into Edward’s psyche and she’s convinced that it’s just a matter of time before he comes to his senses and dumps Laura. As far as Cathie is concerned, Laura doesn’t deserve Edward and she‘s far more suited to be the mistress of Abbotsmere. In the meantime, though, Cathie keeps newspaper reporter, Richard Hardy, on the back burner. A petty conquest in her mind but his successful seduction is proof of her potent powers. It’s funny how Richard Hardy throws over a much better, nicer woman for Cathie–even though “instinct” tells him to run.

Here Mrs Martell had interrupted to say ‘Richard’ in a low clear voice, and she put her head on one side and listened to herself saying ‘Richard’ as though she as considering all the implications of this most beautiful and unusual name.

Mrs Martell is a study in female predatory behaviour. To Cathie, people are means to an end …. or they’re not. It’s funny in a rather nasty way that Cathie, who has zero self-awareness, sees Laura as “utterly, utterly selfish,” and not good enough for Edward while of course, she would make the perfect wife. In Cathie’s mind, she is doing them all a favour if she liberates Edward from the yoke of matrimony. And maybe she is. …

Other women can see that Cathie is a horrible person and no true friend to Laura, but Laura, who’s struggling with the knowledge that she can never seem to do anything right in Edward’s eyes, doesn’t see Cathie for the female piranha she truly is. The book includes a few scenes of Cathie’s reveries of imagined parties with royalty. She also imagines a sad, dull future for Laura, pensioned off in the country somewhere breeding dogs. When it comes to people who ‘count,’ Cathie stages everything. She knows how to show herself to advantage–It’s almost as though she’s an actress starring in her own play. Good take away lesson: You can always tell what a person is really like by the way they treat social ‘inferiors.’ Cooks, cleaners, shop assistants, receptionists etc.

The scenes of the ‘real’ Cathie are priceless and in complete contrast to the sugary sweet cooing to poor, poor long-suffering Edward whose wife doesn’t understand him..

Mrs Martell registered this fact and registered, with annoyance, that the sitting room had not yet been ‘done’. She looked around the bedroom; the breakfast tray; her underclothes hanging over the back of a chair; the dressing-table, not quite tidy; the room did not have an attractive appearance.

And of course it’s terribly tiring to maintain a pleasant face to the world when really you are a horrible person. No wonder Cathie’s real personality slips out.

This is one of the titles from Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow line. Mrs Martell is a subtle story which echoes long after the last page. This long forgotten book deserves a new audience. 

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”

Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.

The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.

Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).

Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.

Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.

The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.

Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:

Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.

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The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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Christmas 1955: Stuart Evers

“Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.”

Speaking for myself, the New Year is always a time for reflection: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so that may explain why I related to Stuart Evers’ short story, Christmas 1955. The main character, June, has the long-held tradition of taking a long, luxurious bath on the evening of the 24th. As with most traditions, June’s leisurely bath is deeply rooted in the past. In this case, June, at age 16 when she was in service to “Madam” was tasked with preparing her employer’s bath, and the task was “as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.” Madam would remain in the bath until dinner, attended by family and guests, was over.

At age 16, June was so impressed with Madam’s ceremonial relaxation, she “promised herself-in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible-that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that; alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water.”

As June takes her time in the bath, she has conversations with her former employer, “Madam,” who has, as it turns out been dead for some years. June is now married to Peter; we know many decades have passed as Peter is retired and June has a grandson. The time in the bath allows June to reflect on her past, and the many changes in her life; one of the changes was to move to a house with indoor plumbing.

In many ways, Christmas 1955 reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but it lacks the sentimentality and manufactured pathos. June reflects at moments in her life, remembering those she knew and lost, and the memories pass like a series of picture postcards with salient moments caught like fossils in amber.

It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts.

The short story is set in the world of Stuart Evers’ novel, The Blind Light, and for some reason, the novel’s release escaped my notice. Onto the list it goes

Review copy

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Winifred Watson

“In one short day, at the first wink of temptation, she had not just fallen, but positively tumbled from grace.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, written in 1938 by Winifred Watson, has the effervescent, glam feel of its times, but rather sadly, for our titular heroine, poor downtrodden governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, her miserable life is drab as she drifts from post to post, subject to the vagaries of various temperamental employers. She’s never allowed to forget that her job is to be submissive, keep her head down and to adapt to the various obnoxious personalities of her employers. After years of living like this (and as it turns out being kicked about by two parents) Miss Pettigrew, with her “timid, defeated expression,” is a wreck of a human being. Whatever Guinevere Pettigrew could have been has been submerged by what she has become.

When the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is desperate for work (again) and the employment agency sends her to a potential post with a certain Miss LaFosse. Miss LaFosse, Delysia, is a glamorous young nightclub singer whose life is a rotating door of men. There seems to be some initial misunderstanding when Miss LaFosse opens the door to Miss Pettigrew, and immediately there’s a crisis as Miss LaFosse, clad in a “silk, satin and lace negligee,” asks for Miss Pettigrew’s help in ejecting one man as another is expected imminently.

Miss Pettigrew finds herself dragged into the sort of life she’s only seen on the screen:

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify harry her every waking hour.

Over the course of a day, Miss Pettigrew steps into an entirely new existence. As she helps Miss LaFosse juggle men (some not very suitable at all) she discovers hidden talents. Soon, she’s knocking back the booze, fabricating alibis, helping two young women with their complicated love lives, acting various roles and even enjoying a make-over. Of course, what Miss Pettigrew doesn’t grasp is that through her lowly, subsumed role as a governess, she’s been acting all of her life and just didn’t realize it.

The great fun here is Miss Pettigrew’s ability to stretch into her new role. She finds that while she sees some of Miss Lafosse’s suitors are bad news, she too, a woman who’s never been kissed, would easily succumb to their tinsel charms.

“Oh dear!!” she thought. “These men. They’re wicked, but it doesn’t matter. They simply leave the good men standing still. […] It’s no use, we women just can’t help ourselves. When it comes to love we’re born adventurers.”

This wonderfully light frothy tale, with its non stop humour, examines sisterhood and the unmined depths of a woman who thinks life has passed her by. I have a fondness for books that explore circumstances in which people discover just what they’re capable of (which explains why I like crime books). The scenes of Miss Pettigrew knocking back the booze are hilarious.

“Sure you won’t have a whiskey?” he offered solicitously. “There’s sure to be some in the cupboard.”

“No thank you,” said Miss Pettigrew blandly. “I prefer them light in the morning.”

Her voice hinted at dark hours of intemperance in the evening.

Oh dear!”” she thought wildly. “it can’t possibly be me speaking like that. What’s come to me? What’s happening to me?”

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (Part 3)

I have spent an entire lifetime unobtrusively making things easier for people and, over the years, I have developed a certain talent for it.”

What exactly is a ‘good woman?’ That’s the question I came away with after finishing Jane Stevenson’s Good Women. In this collection of 3 novellas, we see three very different women: In Light My Fire, Freda is great in bed but really… what was married architect David Laurence thinking when he tossed aside a perfectly decent wife and two children for Freda–a woman, who, let’s face it, screams trouble?

In Walking With Angels, middle-aged Wenda, saddled with a boring life and an even more boring husband turns to her constant companions: the angels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all she does is chat to them, but when she decides to start a business healing people, her husband attempts to intervene.

On the surface Wenda could be described as a ‘good woman,’ but that tag doesn’t fit by the time her story is finished.

So onto Garden Guerillas. .. Following the death of her husband Geoff, Alice still remains in their large 3 storey Georgian home in Kew Greens. Alice fell in love with the house forty years earlier. The house was in disrepair, and while Geoff didn’t want to buy it, Alice could not be dissuaded. They scrimped and scraped and it was some years before they could finally tackle repairs. Alice loves the house, but it’s the garden that’s her greatest treasure.

After Geoff’s death, Alice’s son, his wife and children, who also live in London, begin visiting a bit more. How sweet, right? No. The daughter-in law has her eyes on Alice’s house, and Alice catches her divvying up the bedrooms. After all, according to the d in law, the house is just ‘too much’ for Alice these days.

What ensues is an ugly episode all based on money. I sided with Alice and she behaved far better than I would have. Alice has to swallow some ugly facts: her son is weak, she’s seen as ‘in the way,’ and she will lose her magnificent garden.

While Alice’s son and d in law plot to get the house and shove Alice off to a flat, that’s not the last of the insults. Possibly the very worst thing you can say to a gardener is that the beautiful garden they slaved over takes care of itself. Well Alice has her revenge.

Of the three novellas, Garden Guerillas was my favourite. It’s a story of moving on but also not letting yourself be steamrolled by those who ‘love you’ so much…

And the descriptions of the garden. Surely Jane Stevenson must be a gardener?

It was the endless dance through time which drew me out into the garden every day; the constant recomposition of the picture as one element receded and another came forward. It was beautiful every single week, even in winter, but it was never beautiful in exactly the same way, I couldn’t paint worth a damn, as I discovered in my far-distant youth, but in that garden I had become an artist. Kew had taken me and taught me.

So what’s a good woman? There’s a commonality in all of these stories; despite the diverse settings and circumstances, these women triumph and survive. The ever-changing garden is a metaphor for life: one door closes and another opens in a “constant recomposition” way.

I had had plenty of practice in being taken for granted, but I drew the line at being eradicated.

Thanks again to The Gerts.

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