Tag Archives: female friendship

Temples of Delight: Barbara Trapido

In Barbara Trapido’s novel, Temples of Delight, Alice Pilling, the only daughter of affluent, loving parents attends a dreary girls’ school which provides a dull, mediocre education. The arrival of a new girl, Veronica Bernadette or Jem, as she calls herself, alters Alice’s world irrevocably. A mediocre education can produce mediocre minds, and so none of the pupils question any of the nonsense taught in the curriculum. But Jem, handed a biography of Oliver Cromwell and told to read it, hides The Leopard inside the biography’s covers, and does so right under the nose of her unsuspecting teacher. Jem, it seems, was booted from her last, convent, school, and it doesn’t take long for the subversive Jem to disrupt classes, much to Alice’s delight. On day one, the subject in class is the Norman Conquest, and one girl asks “how did we get back to being English again?” According to the teacher, Miss Aldridge, “we soon turned them [the Normans] into good Englishmen.”

“Excuse me, Miss Aldridge ,” Jem said, and she looked up from the Lampedusa. “Would you say that during the Roman occupation we all became Italians?”

Miss Aldridge frowned with displeasure. She was close to retirement by then and belonged to a generation of Englishwomen not overkeen on foreigners, in general, though Alice thought she had once detected a certain romanticism in Miss Aldridge’s attitude toward Bedouin Arabs. Italians were definitely among her least favourite foreigners and tradition had it among some of the girls that she had had her bottom pinched while on a package holiday in Sorrento. Alice’s imagination had privately elaborated upon this myth, so that she believed Miss Aldridge to have resorted to her armor-plated corsetry as a precaution against a sudden airdrop of Italians on Surrey.

“The Ancient Romans were not Italians, Veronica,” Miss Aldridge said. “Dear me, no! They were a highly disciplined and very hygienic people.”

Jem describes her father as an eccentric who “busies himself in the summerhouse,” her mother as a glamourous Frenchwoman, and her sisters as bohemians. Alice, a periodic stammerer is smitten with Jem, and when Flora, Alice’s former best friend, returns to school after the death of her father, she finds her friendship with Alice co-opted. (There’s a riotous back story section involving Alice and Flora’s family at a restaurant.) Jem’s presence unleashes rivalry between the girls, and the rivalry explodes over Jem’s novel, a bodice-ripper extraordinaire/sensation novel called My Last Duchess. Jem disappears and Alice never quite gets over the loss of her mercurial friend.

As a young woman, Alice, introverted and subdued, attends Oxford, and always the memory of Jem hovers over Alice’s life. At Oxford, she meets the smug, insufferable schoolmaster, Roland, who patiently patronizes Alice, and who forms a reductive image of her as a stammering virgin who needs “coaxing” out of her “funny” ways. Other people in Alice’s life serve as a contrast to Roland’s smug world view, but it’s a visit “up North” that brings a crisis.

Temples of Delight reminded of Elizabeth Jolley in terms of the humour and the eccentric characters. I was gleefully delighted by the wild, outrageous beginning sections with Jem and I liked the middle section with Alice and Roland. The ending, with its religious stuff, for this reader was disappointing. Perhaps part of the issue is that Jem is such a glittering character, the novel suffers from her absence.

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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.

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The Old Lovegood Girls: Gail Godwin

In 1958, Feron Hood arrives at the Lovegood Junior College for Girls courtesy of her Uncle Rowan, a lawyer, a man everyone knows and loves. The dean and the dorm mistress make the careful decision to place the troubled newcomer in a dorm room with Merry Jellicoe. The dean surmises, correctly, that Feron, “had been subjected to a wider range of life’s misadventures than our typical Lovegood girl,” and that she “needs a positive, steadying influence.” The two girls could not have a more dissimilar background. Merry is the much-loved protected daughter of wealthy tobacco farmers, and Feron’s mother was an alcoholic who may or who may not have been murdered by her abusive second husband–a man who turned his violence onto Feron after her mother’s death.

Old lovegood girls

So here are these two girls: one whose past is behind a closed door and the other whose natural, sunny optimism cannot grasp how ugly life can be. The two girls hit it off immediately–perhaps because they both bring different characteristics to the table. Feron asks:

Was a person like Merry born with openheartedness, or was it seeded and grown year after year, by the people who had raised her to choose the generous and the true, themselves building on some rich soil of forebears?

But what if you had been raised by disappointed people who were always telling you they had expected a better life than this, who had withdrawn into themselves and took shortcuts with truth when it served their needs?

If one escaped those influences, was it possible to put on a good disposition, like a costume, and practice and practice until no one, except yourself, knew what you had been like before?

Feron and Merry both write creative assignments for English and while they support each other’s writing, there’s an edge of competitiveness from Feron; everything seems to come so easily to Merry. Their life together at Old Lovegood is cut tragically short when Merry fails to return to school after a holiday. The novel follows the trajectory of the two women’s lives, their successes, their losses, their writing, and their shared acquaintances. While they were each other’s best friends in college, strangely they do not keep in constant touch. It’s a friendship that has monumental significance for both of these women with each one acting as a touchstone for the other.

While the novel seems padded at times with the inclusion of various fictional works, and the interminable church service attended by Merry, I enjoyed the rest of the novel. The relationship between Merry and Feron is intriguing and a little odd. Even though the story revolves around these two women, we never really get that close. These two characters hold each other (and the reader) at a distance with (most) major traumatic events arriving via catch-up. It’s almost as though the connection is so deep that they don’t need to keep in touch–that each woman holds a luminous place ( a “reference aura” as Feron calls it) in their respective lives, and yet it’s a friendship fraught with some darker, realistic elements. Feron, a damaged woman who turns her dark past into her books, is the main character here with modest, kind Merry, who once seemed to be the person whose life you would envy,  in the background. The inclusion of some wonderful secondary characters (typical in a good Southern novel IMO) add a great deal to the panorama of the lives of these two women.  An engaging tale of female friendship, and how tragedy and life impact the creative experience.

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