Tag Archives: female relationships

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.

 

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The Little Girls: Elizabeth Bowen (1963)

“And yet now, this minute, with you sitting there opposite, I quite distinctly see you the way you were. You so bring yourself back that it’s like a conjuring trick.”

Is it wise to revisit the past? This is the question asked in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Little Girls.  Dinah, a woman in her early 60s, assisted by Major Frank Wilkins, constructs a time capsule; she’s “asking people for things.” This all takes place at Applegate, a 1912 “substantial villa“–a splendid dwelling which includes incredible workmanship, “lush green woods,” “the rolling Somerset landscape” and a cave. The process of gathering objects stirs Dinah’s memories back to 1914 when she was 11. Her school friends were Clare Burkin-Jones and Sheila Beaker. But that was fifty years ago. Where are they now?

The little Girls

A rather aggressive series of advertisements, which carry hints and possibly even threats, bring Clare and Sheila from the woodwork. What does Dinah want and how will her two friends react after decades of silence?

The book’s first section brings these three women back together, and it only takes a few minutes in each other’s company for the old relationships to slide back into place. These may be women in their 60s, but suddenly they are 11 once more with all the old rivalries in place–except now there are some nasty comments to toss around.

Sheila has married well but somewhat predictably and she’s immersed and concerned with the appearance of respectability. Clare, who is now a successful businesswoman, hasn’t aged well.

Her forehead, exposed by the turban, was forever scored by the horizontal lines into which it rolled up when she raised, as she often did, her comedian’s eyebrows. Bags underhung her eyes; deep creases down from the broadened lobes of the nostrils, bracketed her mouth. Her pug nose and long upper lip (which she still drew down) should have been recognizable features, had the whole of her not so paralyzed Sheila’s eye. Strictly, she was massive rather than  fat: her tailor-made, tailored to contain her, did not minimize (as she sat at the table) shoulders, chest, bust or rib-cage. Clare had arrived, you might feel, by elimination at the one style possible for herself, and thereafter stuck to it. It did not so much fit her as she it. 

So 3 women who’ve lost touch are now back in the same room, and as you’ve probably guessed it’s a mistake. They don’t want to be reminded of who they were, and yet they find themselves rapidly slipping back into the old groves (including old nicknames). And what is the deal with Dinah’s snoopy servant, Francis?

The book’s first section brings the three women back together and then in the second section, we’re in 1914, and some languid days right before the eruption of WWI. Part 3 brings us back to the present.

The first and second sections of the book were fairly strong, but unfortunately the third section is a disappointment. There are hints of some horrible secret which are never fully realized, and the book is far stronger when it details the relationships between the girls, the women they become, and the poignant scenes of 1914. Of note, however, are the descriptions of the garden which made me see and smell the flowers:

As they mounted the steps, the temperature rose. Above ground, the steamy flower-smells filled the air (more, still, that of a lingering August than of September) as the three followed a spongy serpentine grass path towards the house. On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, Double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy; more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that–she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid onto the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth,.

That paragraph gives a sense of Bowen’s sometimes convoluted style. But above all, this author must have been a gardener.

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Late in the Day: Tessa Hadley

“Isn’t it impossible, though, anyway, to love someone all the time?”

When Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day opens, Alexandr is married to Christine. They have an adult daughter together, Isobel, and Alexandr has a son, Sandy, from a previous marriage. Lydia and husband Zachary have a daughter, Grace, who is an art student in Glasgow. Alexandr and Zachary are long-time friends, and Christine and Lydia, in spite of being polar opposites, are also girlhood friends, but to add to the entanglement of these two couples. Lydia and Christine also babysat Alex’s son when he was married to his former wife.

Ok, so now we have that straight.

Late in the Day opens with the sudden, unexpected death of Zachary. Christine receives a phone call from Lydia and she dashes off to the hospital, scoops up Lydia and brings her home. We all grieve in different ways, and Lydia is in a state of shock when she makes the call to Christine, and yet … there’s something about Lydia that rings warning bells. Does Christine hear? Christine’s first instinct is to guess that Lydia “would be made more domineering somehow by the blow of Zachary’s death.”

Gregarious art gallery owner Zachary is dead when the book begins, but as the novel delves into the past, tangled relationships of these four people, we see him as a rather larger-than-life personality, so his death leaves a hole behind in the lives of the survivors.  Grace acknowledges that “of all of us, he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.”  With Zachary’s sudden death, Lydia seems at a loss to move on, and while this is perfectly natural given the circumstances, there’s something not quite right going on here. We learn how Lydia, as a young girl was fixated on Alex, but how he barely noticed her.  Eventually Alex married Christine while Zachary fell for Lydia.

While funeral arrangements are made, Lydia stays with Christine, and an uncomfortable sensation begins to build which begins with Lydia taking over so much space with her make-up. Lydia appears to be a high maintenance person which probably explains why Alex avoided her years earlier, but now there are undercurrents in Alex and Christine’s marriage, perhaps fueled by frustrated career ambitions, that open the way for turbulence.

Now Lydia set out her brushes and mirror and all the apparatus of her make-up and skin care on top of the chest of drawers: pots and tubes of cream, lipsticks and eye-shadows spilling from bags that were pretty curiosities in themselves, embroidered and patterned zip-bags, or pouches with tasselled silk drawstrings. She draped the mirror and the chair backs with her jewellery and scarves, and the room began to smell of her perfumes. Soon all the surfaces and the floor space were cluttered. 

I liked the premise of the novel, and it’s certainly well-written, but found it hard to care for the characters who seem uninteresting in spite of tantalizing details. Alex, for example, was a poet who gave up and went into teaching. He eventually made headmaster but decided to return to the classroom. Then there’s Christine who keeps her workroom locked and the key hidden. As the history of these four people is gradually revealed I found myself saying wondering what on earth Christine expected. But then perhaps the outcome wasn’t so ‘accidental’ after all.

The novel is strongest in its portrayal of marriage as a shifting, organic entity, and the trickiness of female friendship which seems to be laced with undercurrents of competition. Christine and Lydia have a shared history but little else in common. Lydia is a bird-of-paradise, and Christine is “used to being bruised by Lydia.” Here’s Christine talking to Lydia about marriage. Christine’s daughter, Isobel is about to leave for university and she anticipates the emptiness created by her daughter’s absence.

-Something’s over, though. I didn’t think it would be over so quickly. It felt so monumental and permanent, when it began. You’d think this was something a woman would feel, wouldn’t you, who had no life of her own and had invested too much in her children. But there it is. 

Review copy

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A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

“Marriage is such a sordid, morbid relationship.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s dark novel A Wreath of Roses explores the relationships between three women–relationships which cause them to question the choices they have made. Each of these women: Frances, Liza and Camilla, have chosen different paths in life with varied success. Frances, at one time, was Liz’s governess, but since retirement, she’s concentrated on painting. Liz married a vicar while her childhood friend Camilla, a school secretary, damaged from a long-ago relationship slides into spinsterhood. Camilla travels, as she does every year, to the country home of Frances, where she will spend the summer with Liz, but this year is different. Frances is ill. Liz now has a baby, and for the first time, Camilla is shut out from experiences she has not had, cannot understand, and professes to reject.

A wreath of roses

A Wreath of Roses opens ominously. Camilla has reached a point in her life where she realises that life has passed her by. Being in Liz’s company serves to reinforce Camilla’s unhappiness: yet her observations about Liz are not black and white, not simple. On one hand, she can’t understand why Liz chose to marry a self-absorbed vicar, and the demanding presence of Liz’s baby has served to place a distance between the two childhood friends. Camilla is independent and can please herself while Liz frets about her baby’s health and her husband’s wandering attention.

Frances, who is ill, contemplates death, the meaningless of life and now paints from “an inner darkness.”  She has maintained a long-time correspondence with Mr Beddoes,  a rather lonely bachelor whose “spiritual” relationship with Frances is about to change when he travels to meet her for the first time. As a film director and an ardent observer of human nature, he’s the first person to recognise that Camilla is heading into danger through her relationship with Richard Elton, an enigmatic man, a charmer, also on holiday. Richard claims to be writing a book about his war experiences. ….

Camilla, who wants to return to her boring employment with memories to help fill her sterile life, finds herself attracted to Richard in spite of several warning signs and in spite of the fact that he’s not her ‘type’ at all. He has the “conventional good-looks of the kind that she, Camilla, believed she despised,” and Richard, for his part, dismisses Camilla as a “schoolmistress.”  A terrible event brings them into each other’s orbit, and once there, Richard and Camilla sense a need that can be fulfilled.  But they need different things:

“And women. Love.” he went on impatiently. “Where does it lead to, I wondered.”

“Must it lead somewhere?” She smiled.

“For a few days it didn’t need to. Then it would all seem like a play I was acting in. Been acting in a long time. A long run, and I knew all my lines too well and was stale and boring everyone. But most of all myself. Then I tried death.”

“Death?”

“In the war,” he said lightly. “I went up very close to it. My own and other people’s. And there it was. Unlike all the other things, it never changed. It was always real. I seem to carry the thought of it about with me.”

“You mustn’t.”

“Oh … I shan’t … it’s just that people are like doors. They lead you into empty rooms. You pass through and are left with yourself. Only death goes through ahead of you.”

Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the darkest undercurrent in this novel, and the novel’s tone is lightened by the gossip borne by Mrs Parsons, the cleaning lady, and by Liz fretting about her relationship with her husband. Liz acknowledges that her husband being a clergyman added to his initial attraction, and hinted at “inner mystery.” Liz is beginning to wonder if she made a mistake:

“I did think, though,” she continued, at once disregarding her own instructions, “that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered there was even less.”

Liz finds she is irritated by her husband’s almost continual presence at home and that she “is left with a rather cold and greedy man sitting at his desk writing notes to other women–casual-seeming little notes which take him hours and hours to scribble off.” This summer is a period of adjustment for Liz: she must adjust to married life, motherhood, and her responsibilities (and sacrifices) as a vicar’s wife.

A Wreath of Roses examines the lives of three women who all wonder if they made the right choices. There’s Frances who “assumed” the act of being an old maid while her dark view of life and unexpressed passion erupt in her art. Acknowledging that she threw herself into raising Liz, Frances admits that she also “evaded the pain and the delight of human-relationships.” Frances sees Camilla making the same choices that she did and even at one point says that “even Liz’s marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 

“We go on for years at a jog-trot,” Frances said, “and then suddenly we are beset by doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone, all at once that we must grope our way forward for we cannot retrace our footsteps.”

While Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the novel’s darkest point, another dark undercurrent flows from Frances’s nihilistic view of life.

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.”

She sat down on a kitchen-chair and looked at the lamp burning; her clenched hand beat nervously against her thigh.

“The only thing that makes sense of it all is looking up at the sky at night and knowing that even the burden of cruelty we’ve laid upon the earth, scarcely exists; must fly away into dust, is nothing, too infinitesimal to matter. All the time, the house is falling into ruin, and I run to the walls  and tack my pretty pictures to them as they collapse.”

Caroline’s Review is here.

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