“For if it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.”
The Summer House by British author Alice Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) is a story built around the events that take place before an impending wedding. The novel is a trilogy and it’s divided into three parts: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment. Don’t be put off by the idea of the trilogy as my Penguin edition has a mere 339 pages.
I throughly enjoyed this comedy of manners for its playful yet dark approach to some favourite themes–the gathering of family and friends, the subtle politics of relationships, and various shades of mis-behaviour politely tolerated or ignored. One of the most delightful aspects of The Summer House is the way that everyone manages to silently engage in a unilateral conspiracy to ignore bad behaviour until that behaviour becomes so outrageous, it can no longer be overlooked. The story, with lavish dollops of generous humour, is told through the eyes of three very different narrators, young bride-to-be, Margaret, the exotic, promiscuous half-Egyptian Lili, and the elderly Mrs Monro.
The novel revolves around what should–under better circumstances–be considered a joyous event. Margaret who lives with her divorced mother, Monica in the well-to do, safe, yet fussily staid part of Croyden, is engaged to marry Syl–a man who lives next door. With his mother. If that gave you pause, you’re heading in the right direction. But there are more problems here than just Syl’s living arrangements. Syl, a lawyer, is old enough to be Margaret’s father, and his previous, innumerable engagements have failed, for vague reasons, to end in marriage. There are hints that Syl leads a double life, but worse than that, Margaret is not in love with Syl. In fact, she loathes him:
I spent as little time with Syl as I possibly could. He didn’t seem to mind. He had few friends but many acquaintances. He played tennis and golf and sometimes went swimming, determined to give no appearance of succumbing to time, to age, I saw that he could not marry a woman of his own generation, for that would double his chances of seeming old. It was sad for me, I thought, that I was the only girl in the world sufficiently stupid to permit herself to be sacrificed to his vanity.
So why is Margaret, a privileged young girl who has no worries or pressures about employment or money marrying a man she loathes? The reason is not immediately apparent, but in Part I: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, Margaret, who is depressed, narrates a tale that reveals an enormous and confusing sense of guilt for an incident in her past. She travelled to Egypt to spend some time with one of her mother’s old school friends, Marie Claire, and something (revealed in time) very bad happened there. Margaret simply no longer cares what happens to her, and she drifts towards her wedding day hoping that something or someone will intervene and save her from Syl.
Part II: The Skeleton in the Cupboard is narrated by Syl’s mother, Mrs Monro. While Mrs Monro hopes to see her son “settled” before she dies, she has serious misgivings about the wedding. Naturally in spite of his faults, she loves her son, and she’s appalled by Margaret’s obvious disinterest in Syl. Mrs Monro, whose main companion after Syl is her overweight elderly Pug, feels powerless to intervene even though she knows that the marriage will be an unmitigated disaster.
Part III: The Fly in the Ointment is narrated by the flamboyant, “vividly alive” middle-aged Lili who arrives with her artist husband in Britain in order to attend the wedding. Lili, who was one of Monica’s best friends in school in Egypt, moves in ostensibly to help with the wedding preparations. Lili, however, has a checkered past, and that leads to confidences from Mrs Monro and desperate hints for help from Margaret.
Here’s Mrs Monro on the unforgettable Lili:
I was disproportionately pleased to see her. She had the effect of an open window on a frosty room, ice in a lukewarm drink, wind on a sullen sea, She was free of the shaming curbs of expedient morality. She would never smell of milk, or the urine of infants, or laundry-steam rising from linen indiscriminately washed. She wasn’t a mother, and if she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.
Here Mrs Monro discusses memory and aging:
Looking in the mirror, I could see no trace of the girl whose life I had been reliving. Old age seemed to me not so much a natural progression as a disguise: a suit of unsuitable clothes, ill-fitting and inappropriate.
As the wedding draws near, the attempts to cover Margaret’s joylessness, dread, and sense of impending doom become harder and harder to conceal, and there’s an atmosphere of increasing almost intolerable pressure. Margaret’s mother is determined to make Margaret see it through as she views marriage as some sort of social and moral obstacle course fraught with martyrdom and duty.
Author Alice Thomas Ellis competently creates a wonderful tale that steers a course between some characters who realise things are terribly wrong, other characters who are determined to ignore the warning signs, and finally a few who are oblivious to things going on right under their noses.
It’s a tribute to the skill of the author that she decides to slice the tale into three narratives–a device which allows us to see different facets of the characters involved in the drama. Through Margaret’s eyes, old Mrs Monro is boring and doddery, but then we get Mrs Monro’s narration and see that she’s an extremely sympathetic character, and Syl may be unpleasant and vain, but he is a good son. Lili’s robust narrative reveals a woman who shares her doubts only with her reflection while she plays a close, duplicitous hand with everyone else. While a great deal of the book’s focus is on the various misdeeds of men (adultery & immaturity), the women are not without their share of faults. There’s the marvellously amoral and predatory Lili–a woman who’ll sleep with a gallery director to seal the promise of a show, but there’s also the pathologically prim Monica–a woman who’d drive any spouse to insanity. Lili secretly calls Monica a “grabber,” a woman who’s grabbed so much of her ex-husband’s assets that he, his dull new wife and their two pale “dressed up dead chicken” children live in straitened circumstances. Some of the most delightfully wicked passages concern domestic paragon Monica’s gloating attitude and “angelic forbearance” towards her ex’s miserable second marriage and the questionable talents of his hopeless second wife.
She had been outraged when her husband left her for another woman, had addressed him with religious vehemence and spoken of hell, but as time passed she had realized that life was very much more pleasant without him, that he was generous with money, and so she had, not forgiven, but ceased to revile him; and I know she found grim amusement in my stepmother’s harassed countenance and the irritating ways of her two small children. They would come sometimes for my birthday, or at Christmas, and my mother, whose material circumstances were very much more comfortable than those of my father and his new family, would patronize them and condole with my stepmother on my father’s drinking habits and the undisciplined weeping of her little boy. The girl bade fair to be pretty but fortunately was extremely dim.
For anyone interested, The Summer House was made into a highly entertaining film starring Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.