Tag Archives: British fiction

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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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (part 2)

Jane Stevenson’s Good Women contains 3 novellas, and each of these tales centres on three very different female protagonists. After finishing the book, which is quite marvelous BTW (thank you Gerts), I thought about what it meant to be a good woman–what the author intended.

The first novella Light My Fire is the story of a married architect who abandons wife and children after beginning an affair with a “sex bomb.”  Freda is a lot of things: a rapacious sex partner, a high-maintenance woman, not too bright etc etc. (although her native cunning and primo self-preservation kick in when necessary). She is NOT by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good woman’ unless you are just counting sex, and, in this case, her sex appeal is a death trap. 

So onto the second story, Walking With Angels. Middle-aged Wenda, who works part-time at a chemist, is married to lumpish Derek. It’s a dull marriage and a dull, predictable life, with evenings spent watching the telly as they eat their meals on trays. Wenda starts seeing angels, and she says they communicate with her. She keeps this to herself, but then when the opportunity arises, she heals a coworker. 

Wenda is a peculiar woman, easy to underestimate; she’s no doubt quite bonkers, and while she has the trappings of being a ‘good woman’–immaculate housewife, cook, good housekeeper etc., there are transgressive elements under the surface. When she finds violent porn on her husband’s computer, she uses her discovery as leverage, and then there are some sexual details of Wenda and Derek’s courtship. …

Back in the olden days, it’s women were the spiritual ones. Then the men put a stop to it because their noses were out of joint. They reckoned women had too much power, you see and then cause they couldn’t connect with the Chi energy themselves, they made up all this stuff about hellfire to keep us in our place. It’s all there in history. I’ve read about it. 

The coworker pushes Wenda to use her ‘gift.’ Again, like Freda, Wenda isn’t too bright. She doesn’t grasp that her ‘gift’ has become a money-making opportunity, not for Wenda, but for the mini-industry that springs up around her, pushing her to become a ‘professional.’ And while Freda has her strong sense of self-preservation to protect her, Wenda has her angels to tell her how to proceed. As Wenda pursues her true calling as a healer, developing cards, a jewelry line, and even aromatherapy oils, Derek, who’s in charge of the finances, decides to put his foot down. Good luck with that.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson

It’s a good rule of thumb not to get involved with a woman you meet while she’s masturbating on a train, but when it comes to Freda Constantine, successful architect, David Laurence opts for self-destruction or maybe it’s just excitement or the constant sex. Both David and Freda are on the Edinburgh train when their uncontrollable sexual desire leads to an affair. The affair leads to a break up of two marriages with David leaving a perfectly good wife and two daughters. David’s career, which had been bolstered by his Scottish wife’s connections, also suffers. But nothing is keeping David from Freda. He says “she felt like the woman I was meant to have.”

Good Women

Light My Fire, the first of three sharply funny novellas in Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, charts the trajectory of David’s catastrophic relationship with Freda. There’s a sort of madness here, and David’s obsession with Freda is marked by a need for possession–even though he knows she’s trouble–even though he knows “she was a woman you couldn’t trust if you couldn’t see her.” 

At least there weren’t any kids on the other side. I was so obsessed with Freda I’d’ve carried on regardless even if she’d been a mother of ten, but the Fredas of this world, thank god, are strictly ornamental, like those strange toys you’re not supposed to give to children. A perfumed garden, not a fertile field. She’d never wanted kids, she told me, to my unspeakable relief. I’ve got a couple of pals who’ve settled into this grotesque pattern of finding someone new around the time that the current wife’s just about got number two potty trained , and starting all over again. What a carry-on. There must be some kind of death wish involved–fifteen or twenty years of pampers and sleepless nights, it’s a thought to freeze the blood. 

Knowing that he will have to impress “high-maintenance” Freda in a big way if he wants to keep her, David buys a wreck of a 16th century house “in the middle of nowhere.” At first she’s impressed as it’s “practically a castle.” But then she sees inside…

Oh the wonderful scenes at Scottish Christmas party There’s a point at which men’s envy of another man’s sizzling hot new wife turns to amusement:

I could see people I knew glancing at her and then at me. Cool, amused glances.

Light My Fire is wickedly funny in its portrayal of a man who destroys his life in order to possess a woman who is nothing but trouble. David knows Freda is selfish, self-serving, grasping and not particularly bright, but all these negatives are wiped out by his need to sew up her sexual exclusivity. The passionate affair boils down to two wildly disparate people, whose tastes, goals and ambitions are worlds apart, and that’s ok for a while … until reality sets in.  

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this book. Another post (or two) on the rest of the book to follow ….

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Weatherley Parade: Richmal Crompton (1944)

Yes, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) wrote those Just William books, but she also wrote a host of adult novels. Crossing genre and audience boundaries can be hazardous to both the author’s career and the readers’ expectations, so when I first came across a few of her novels (for adults) I wondered how good they would be. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Steffan Green, a story of village life in the 30s, so onto Weatherley Parade–a book which had lingered in my TBR  room stack for far too long.

The word ‘parade’ evokes a celebration, but if there’s any celebration here, then it must be the celebration of survival. The book opens in 1902 with the return of Arthur Weatherley from the second Boar War. Although Queen Victoria died the year before, somehow the ending of the Boer War seemed to slam the door on the era, so here we have the Weatherley family about to enter a different age. Since the novel follows several generations of this family into the 20th century, we know we are going to head into some difficult times.

Arthur Weatherley arrives home a broken man; he’s now an invalid and will remain so for the rest of his life. In his absence, his much younger responsible second wife, Helena, has managed their stately county home, their baby Billy and Arthur’s 2 children from a former marriage: Clive and Anthea. Even though the 3 children are young, already the eldest 2 have formed the characters which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Clive is ‘perfect’–a sober little adult in the body of a 15-year-old. He’s even tempered and meticulous. Clive has many of his father’s characteristics, but while Arthur Weatherley could be called an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, a product of his age, Clive is a prig. But there’s more than just fustiness afoot here. There’s no warmth, no shred of humanity or compassion. He’s an automaton. Eventually he marries and proceeds to micromanage his young, naive wife. If he micromanaged her with sarcasm or anger, she’d probably fight back, but he micromanages her with a smile, under the guise of ‘teaching’ her. 

On the top of the bureau was a little pile of books that Lindsay had brought from the Library the day before. He looked at them with a kindly smile.

“No trash, I hope, darling?”

“No,” said Lindsay. “They’re all from the list you gave me.”

Anthea Weatherley, on the other hand, is nothing like her brother. She’s vain, superficial and hell bent on being the centre of attention. “Already the bright–too bright–eyes were darting round in search of further conquests.”

Other characters include: Arthur’s sister, Lilian, a youngish woman when the book opens, whose many engagements to various men have all ended abruptly. Lilian is on the wild side; she smokes and drinks, and her private life causes Arthur a great deal of anguish. Lilian won’t settle down, and over the course of several decades she restlessly careens from one cause to another, burning her bridges as she goes.

Another significant character is Clive’s best friend Ronnie–the son of the local vicar. Ronnie is neglected and treated badly by his father who is unhealthily fixated on his paralyzed daughter, Flora. She may be immobile but she’s a tyrant masquerading as an angel:

You’re a very brave little girl,” said Miss Clorinda. 

“Well, I can’t be anything else,” said Flora, “so I might as well be brave.”

The Vicar’s hand went to the pocket where he kept the notebook in which he recorded his angel’s more notable sayings, then, as he remembered where he was, withdrew. He could put it down later … Flora’s sharp eyes had seen and understood the movement. If he forgot to put it down later, she would remind him. He didn’t often forget, but when he did she reminded him.

Ronnie accepts Clive’s patronage as he’s several years younger than Clive, but as the years pass, Ronnie, no longer wants a friendship with someone who acts like his schoolmaster, and he grows apart from Clive.

The novel’s strongest aspect is the examination of character as these people age and interact. Many of the relationships here are built on exploitation of one sort or another. When people are nasty, then their behaviour is at least somewhat transparent, so manipulation with kid gloves under the guise of ‘caring’ is especially toxic.

Will wild Aunt Lilian ever find happiness? It’s arguable that she can’t fit into the role defined for her by the standards of the day (marriage and children). Will she grow through the Suffragette movement or it this just another of her phases?

And what of Anthea as she ages? Some of the novels best scenes concern her middle aged attention seeking behaviour which her kind, supportive (doting) husband, accepts as normal.

There’s some tragedy here as peoples’ lives fall apart. Adults blunder and a child pays the  heavy price. Society changes a great deal over the years 1902-1940, and these changes free some of the characters. The novel begins with women not expected to get an education as “a girl’s place is at home both before and after marriage, ” and divorce is considered perfectly scandalous. We pass through WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Civil War, the growth of Socialism, the rise of Nazi Germany, and eventually WWII. Incredibly few characters become casualties given these events, and instead people more or less build their own tragic fates. While the Weatherley children grow up and move away, the story still revolves around the house and the family. This is a gentle read, even while it reinforces the idea that character is fate.  

 

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Imperfect Women: Araminta Hall

Araminta Hall’s novel, Imperfect Women, a tale of murder, female friendship and the splintered lives made by the pressure of choices, is told through the eyes of three very different women: Eleanor, Mary and Nancy, friends who met in University and have stayed close for decades. Their lives have taken very different paths: Eleanor works for a charity organization and on the surface seems to have the career every women wants. But when it comes to her personal life, she has no long-term relationships and no children. Nancy, the beauty of the bunch, is married to human rights lawyer, Robert. They have a gorgeous London home, a child in university, and to all outside appearances, the perfect marriage. Yet Nancy also feels like a bit of a loser. She didn’t have the great career she expected, and she had a difficult time adjusting to having a child. And that brings us to Mary who is an earth goddess type. She’s married to self-focused academic Howard, has children and lives in domestic chaos. These three women feel imperfect and inadequate in various ways for the choices they’ve made.

Imperfect women

The novel opens with a call to Eleanor in the middle of the night from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Nancy didn’t return home after having dinner with Eleanor at a restaurant. Eleanor joins Robert as they wait for Nancy’s return, but only the police arrive to break the news that Nancy has been found dead.

In the wake of the murder, it’s revealed that Nancy was having an affair with a married man. Eleanor knew of the affair but only in scant detail while Robert says he suspected the affair. When Eleanor tells the police that Nancy had tried repeatedly to break off the affair, the mystery lover becomes the prime suspect in Nancy’s murder.

The story unfolds through 3 narrative voices: Eleanor, Nancy and then Mary. Through these alternating voices, we see how these three very different women struggle with their fractured identities through career, marriage, children. Eleanor has a great career but no personal life, and even though she doesn’t want children, she’s confronted frequently with this very personal decision:

“You know, I’m getting to that age where everyone asks me if I have kids, and when I say I don’t, they actually ask me why not, or if I want them  which they would never, ever do to a man. And there’s this kind of judgment behind the question that I’m not fulfilling my womanly duties by becoming a mother. And then I work with lots of women who have children and they’re constantly feeling guilty and definitely being judged by the same people who judge me for not having them, or you for not working.”

Nancy has a good husband and marriage but having a child led to disaster and estrangement from Robert. She feels deeply lacking because she never had the career everyone expected her to have. And as for Mary, she has centered herself on the family. Her home life is bitter and chaotic and she’s become a doormat for her selfish controlling husband. Mary seems happy, but to her two friends, she’s wasted. None of these women ended up with the lives they expected to have.

Women, Eleanor thought, carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much so it weighs them down and stops them from ever achieving quite everything they should. She knew also that a man faced with the true extent of a woman’s guilt only ever really thinks she is mad, she could hear it already in Robert’s tone. Madness, neurosis, heightened emotions, are all such easy monikers to apply to women.

While this is a crime book, the plot explores the fallout from the crime, and the impact on Nancy’s friends and family. But much more than that, it examines how women betray women. There’s always been a subtle animosity directed towards Nancy from her friends due to her looks and marriage, so when she turned to Eleanor for help, Eleanor was impatient as she felt that Nancy’s issues were self manufactured and slight. Yes men betray women, but perhaps betrayals from other women are worse. Just as there are cracks in long-term marriages, there are cracks in long-term friendships. Years create divisions and low-level resentments. It all comes down to that-mile-in-my-moccasins thing.

I liked this book quite a bit. By the time Mary’s section rolled around I had guessed the perp, so this section seemed long-drawn out until it arrived at the obvious. But apart from that, the way in which the author peels back levels of guilt and dissatisfaction in the lives of these three women adds depth to the tale.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hall Araminta