Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.
Tag Archives: British fiction
In Margaret Forster’s Isa and May, Isamay, looking at 30, is struggling to focus on her thesis, and no wonder–the vast subject is grandmothers in history. She has landed on a few significant figures, including Elizabeth Fry, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Victoria and has several questions that she chews over: such as how do grandmothers view their roles? She’s looking for “links, consequences, direct connections” between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Isamay’s research, so far, draws no solid conclusion. Some grandmothers are “figures of authority” while others see being a grandmother as a chance to ‘do over’ motherhood. Some just enjoy it. It’s clear that Isamay’s thesis is unmanageable and her unsatisfying meetings with her advisor Claudia, usually don’t go well. Claudia, however, doesn’t dismiss Isamay’s project completely, and tries to add direction:
When someone assumed a new role in life, she said, they tend to copy or to reject the example of whoever has filled that role for them.
But at the heart of Isamay’s thesis is her desire to understand her own grandmothers: Isa and May. They are two very different women.
It will be obvious by now that I am obsessed with Isa and May, my grandmothers, or more precisely, I am obsessed by their significance without being sure what it is.
May is solidly, proudly, working class. She left school at 14 and worked in a factory. She tends to hide her personality in frustrating statements that block any discussion so that it’s impossible to know her beliefs or tell if she has an inner life. Here’s Isamay trying to discover May’s opinions on god.
“God is supposed to be a spiritual power,” I said, “Not actually a person.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“He is supposed to be an almighty spirit who created the universe and sent his son Jesus Christ to save us all.”
“Very kind of him.”
“But the point is, as I said, he is a spiritual presence, or idea…”
“Make your mind up.”
“…whose existence we can’t properly grasp because our minds can’t fully comprehend–“
“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, stop it! You’re making me poorly. Haven’t I gone through enough?”
“All I’m saying is that some very clever people believe in God…”
“Good luck to them.”
“So you don’t, then?”
“Believe in God.”
“Did I say that?”
“Well then, don’t twist my words.”
Isa is the complete opposite. Whereas it’s ok to drop in on May, Isa requires appointments. Isa is always immaculately groomed and lives a much more affluent lifestyle. May calls Isa, “Lady Muck,” while Isa calls May “Mrs. Wright.” “They were mutually suspicious” of each other from the moment they met. It’s no surprise that the two grandmothers don’t like each other and that Isamay is their battleground. Both grandmothers contributed a great deal to Isamay’s life and outlook. When the grandmothers become ill, Isamay steps in, and she’s also hot on the trail of some deep dark secret that Isa keeps deeply buried. Another subplot concerns Ian, Isamay’s boyfriend. On one hand he’s extremely supportive, but on the other, when it comes to the subject of family, he’s downright hostile, so there are secrets there too.
Not the best Forster I’ve read. The sections regarding Isamay’s research were interesting but Isamay’s inability to harness her thesis and batter it into shape impacts the novel. That said, the warring grandmothers are great. While these two women could not be more different, there’s a connection when it comes to walling off their inner lives.
My money’s on May any day.
“With all those numbers on the news every night, who’s going to notice if two more elderly Britons snuff it?”
The title of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go? could refer to suicide or Brexit: both are issues in the novel through the main characters, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson. It’s 1991. Kay, an NHS nurse, is 51 when her 94-year-old father, who had dementia, finally dies. Now that her father is dead, Kay says she feels “absolutely nothing” as he’s spent years “dying by degrees.” Kay’s mother, 18 years her husband’s junior is now 76 years old “having squandered a decade and a half on toilet duty, cursed and vilified for her efforts.” The long illness of Kay’s father brings the subject of Cyril’s parents to the fore, and then the post funeral discussion segues to Kay and Cyril making a decision:
We should really keep the means to a quick exit at the ready on principle.
They don’t want to be like Kay’s father and so reject his example of the “whirlpool of endless need.” So, calculating their life expectancy, they make a pact to commit joint suicide on Kay’s 80th birthday in 2020. It sounds like a great idea at the time and so far away. …
The first part of the novel covers the pact and its fallout. This is followed by alternate outcomes of the pact in Sliding Doors fashion. Some outcomes were miserable–others make giant leaps with imagination–such as one alternative involving cryogenics and another dystopian future in which Britain experiences a “sudden deluge of migration.”
The pact and its outcome could have made a good short story or even a good novel; aging is a vast topic in itself, but the alternate scenarios didn’t work for this reader–although I seem to be in the minority here. Also, while the premise is interesting, its execution stresses issues with characters slotted into those issues like chess pieces. For example, early on Kay and Cyril have a long discussion (post her dad’s funeral) re aging, carers, financial concerns etc.
“True, the means-testing is pretty brutal-”
“The savings threshold above which the council won’t wipe your bum is a measly twenty grand-which is far more cash than Mum has left after all those carers, but she still wouldn’t qualify for benefits because she has the house. If you’ve stashed nothing away, or next to nothing? The council picks up the whole tab. How do you like that, Mister Socialist. You slave away your whole life like my father, carrying your financial weight and supporting your family, and then when you collapse the state says you’re on your own. Do nothing, earn nothing, and save nothing-make absolutely no provision for yourself-and the state takes care of you for free, soup to nuts. Talk about moral hazard! Obviously, anyone who does anything, earns anything, and saves anything is a berk!”
This discussion goes on for some time. It’s more like a talk radio rant than a post-funeral discussion between husband and wife.
Brexit, immigration, and Covid are thrown into the mix, so that the issues are broadened, while I (boringly perhaps) would have preferred a narrowing. Put the characters under a microscope instead of turning a telescope on them. Of far more interest, as the date for joint suicide approaches, is Cyril’s persistent belligerent bullying of Kay into suicide, so much so that she resorts to hiding that she has high blood pressure from her husband. And then as a GP, his attitude to the aging “bed blockers” is positively Harold Frederick Shipman in its nastiness. What a nasty old git Cyril is, a misery who begrudges life beyond 80. While he has a definite point (the pitfalls of life extension, the financial burden of end-of-life care, the use of heroic means to prolong life etc) Cyril’s insistence in carrying through with the pact in spite of his and his wife’s good health screams of something else. What elderly person would want a Dr. like Cyril? Anyway for this reader, there were too many issues flying through the plot.
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.
“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.
“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?
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.