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.