Tag Archives: infidelity

Mrs Martell: Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

“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. 

4 Comments

Filed under Elizabeth Eliot, Fiction

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a reread. I’m not quite sure what drew me back–perhaps the thought that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a great favorite of mine, reveals new dimensions with each reread. Perhaps I thought the same would happen with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--my belief is that reread revelations say more about the change in the reader–not the book.

The plot is fairly simple. The first part of the novel is in epistolary form with letters sent from Gilbert Markham to his friend Jack Halford. Through these letters, Markham recounts events that took place many years earlier in 1827. As a young man of 24, Markham leads a quiet country life with his mother, annoying younger brother, Fergus and sister Rose at Linden-Car Farm. Their social circle is small, and Markham is attached to Eliza Millward, the daughter of the local vicar. Although Eliza is penniless and not beautiful, Markham sees Eliza’s good qualities, and considers her a “very engaging little creature,” with “irresistibly bewitching eyes.” He seeks out her company, and his preference for Eliza is noted by both families.

The quiet life of the community begins to stir with the arrival of a mysterious tenant, a young widow named Helen Graham. She takes up residence, along with her small son, Arthur and surly servant Rachel, at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall which belongs to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence. Of course, with a new person in the neighbourhood, social visits must be made and soon tongues (female tongues) are wagging about Helen Graham. Markham’s first encounter with Helen is not promising; she’s prickly, and standoffish to the point of rudeness. Helen’s solitary situation combined with her anti-social behaviour, her blunt refusal to bow to the opinions of others (including the vicar) win no friends, and the rumours about Helen grow. Eliza, sensing a rival in Helen, is the main offender when it comes to gossip, and in this she is aided and abetted by the very ambitious, sly Jane Wilson. Jane has her eyes set upon marriage to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord, and since Lawrence’s name is linked to Helen’s (in a most unsavory way), Eliza and Jane both have their knives out for Helen. Eliza’s behaviour repels Markham and he realises that everything positive he once saw in Eliza is non-existent. She’s unkind, cruel and petty. Still … she has lost Markham’s attentions and so the lady must be excused to some extent. Markham’s passion for Helen grows and he also becomes attached to Arthur. Markham presses his suit, and Helen, already aware of the gossip surrounding her lonely existence at Wildfell Hall and the condemnation she will receive for the visits of an eager bachelor, finally gives Markham journals of her life which explain exactly why she is at Wildfell Hall. (There’s another reason she gives him the journals which I won’t reveal here.)

Helen’s sections are, therefore, in journal form. The journals begin when she is a young single woman in London. Abandoned by a neglectful father and raised by an aunt and uncle, she is at first pursued by an older suitor. Helen’s aunt approves of the match but Helen wants to marry for love… then she meets Arthur Huntington. Despite warning signs that he is a thorough rotter, and also against her aunt’s dire warnings, Helen insists on marrying Arthur, and it’s a terrible mistake. …

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was considered shocking for its time: and no wonder–alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, corruption of a child. Is there no end to the wickedness?? There were moments when I laughed out loud (inappropriately) at poor Helen’s naïve belief that she could ‘improve’ Arthur and stop him from all the wicked pursuits he had squandered most of his fortune on during his raucous bachelorhood. The marriage of Helen and Huntingdon is that prototype of the ‘good woman’ determined to save the ‘bad man’ from himself. And of course it’s doomed to failure as we knew it would be. Helen should have married a clergyman and Arthur should have married a thoroughly bad woman (like Annabella Lowborough)–a woman who would have kept him on his toes in the competition to see who could be more unfaithful. But that’s the point isn’t it? Arthur Huntingdon wanted and needed someone like Helen–a disapproving figure who made his exploits all the more fun. And Helen went into marriage wanting to ‘fix’ Arthur. An older, more experienced woman would have known there was no fixing to be done. …

Arthur hones his cruelty in the first few months of marriage, and then quickly tires of his new toy. He abandons Helen for months at a time, and then brings his dissipated friends for fun and games. Yes he wants to indulge in every vice, but it’s so much more fun to do it in front of Helen. Helen reminds me of the character of Jane Eyre in her strong morality and backbone, and I liked Helen a lot for the first part of her story. While I had great sympathy for her situation, her naiveté, her economic and legal plight, eventually I grew tired of her lectures. Since all she did was provide Arthur with cheap, cruel entertainment, why is she wasting her breath, I asked myself? (Course it’s that classic abuse cycle repeated ad nauseum.)

I’m not going segue into a PhD discourse about why this novel is important or the character of Branwell Brontë, etc. etc. The novel is amazing for its time and its scandalous, revolutionary approach to inheritance, education, divorce, and woman and child as property. Helen’s refusal to bow to the ‘authority’ of the pompous clergyman is another rejection of the patriarchy in which she is drowning. Her individual morality soars over any formal notion of religion. Some of Helen’s speeches are jaw-dropping when she speaks upon the rights of women, and yes this is Feminism before there was such a word. It’s impossible to read this novel and not feel that laws must be changed. As it is, Helen must endure all humiliations heaped upon her by her husband. She has no recourse to the law, manages by the skin of her teeth to support herself through painting, and is shunned by society for finally leaving her abusive, dickhead of a husband.

Arthur was already a boozing whoremonger when he married. Helen bored him with her otherworld goodness and her preaching, and any appeal to his conscience had the opposite result. It merely urged him on. This is why Helen and Arthur were the worst possible partners for each other. I’m going to add that by the time the novel ended, if I had been Arthur Huntington, it would have been a nightmare to wake up to Helen by my side telling me to prepare for my maker. Payback’s a bitch–there he is a helpless invalid in bed (yes serves the bastard right) and Helen delivers the coup de grace. He probably croaked just to get away from her. Here he is asking if he will survive:

“I’ve had a dreadful time of it, I assure you: I sometimes thought I should have died: do you think there’s any chance?”

There’s always a chance of death; and it is always well to live with such a chance in view.”

“Yes, yes! But do you think there’d any likelihood that this illness will have a fatal termination?”

I cannot tell; but, supposing it should, how are you prepared to meet the event?”

“Why, the doctor told me I wasn’t to think about it, for I was sure to get better if I stuck to his regimen and prescriptions.”

“I hope you may, Arthur; but neither the doctor nor I can speak with certainty in such a case; there is internal injury, and it is difficult to know to what to what extent.”

“There now! you want to scare me to death.”

“No; but I don’t want to lull you to false security. If a consciousness of the uncertainty of life can dispose you to serious and useful thought, I would not deprive you of the benefit of such reflections, whether you do eventually recover or not. Does the idea of death appall you very much?”

“It’s just the only thing I can’t bear to think of: so if you’ve any–“

“But it must come sometime,” interrupted I, “and be it years hence, it will as certainly overtake you as if it came to-day,– and no doubt be as unwelcome then as now, unless you–”

“Oh, hang it! don’t torment me with your preachments now, unless you want to kill me outright. I can’t stand it, I tell you. I’ve suffered enough without that. If you think there’s danger, save me from it, and then, in gratitude, I’ll hear whatever you like to say.”

I would have liked Helen more if the death and religion lectures had been delivered with an acknowledgment that she was enjoying the reversal of power. In other words, if she’d not been such a saint and was just a little bit wicked.

6 Comments

Filed under Brontë Anne, Fiction

Poor Angus: Robin Jenkins

“These artist types,” said Douglas, “are poison to women. I read that once.”

Poor Angus from Scottish author Robin Jenkins is an examination of the artistic life. Does the pursuit of art exclude the artist from moral obligations? Or is Art simply an excuse for selfishness? Painter Angus McAllister returns to the Hebridean island of his birth ostensibly to paint his masterpiece. He prefers to paint nudes and during the course of his modest career, he’s had many love affairs but has always managed to float away free of any entanglement. Angus “implied” that “being married would cripple him as an artist.” And, in truth, having a wife in tow, even if she were some sort of saint, would cramp Angus’s style. He can give a lot to a woman: attention (during the portrait phase), sex and romance (for a while anyway), and he’s the perfect (wild fling) antidote to the boring, stodgy, unfaithful husband.

There are two women who feature prominently in Angus’s past: the married Australian, good natured, boisterous redhead Nell and Fidelia “the most delectable of women,” part-Portuguese, and part Filipino. She is also married but is separated from her brothel owning husband.

So right away it’s established that Angus is one for the ladies, on his slippery terms, and he’s remained successfully unencumbered, always moving on when things become too serious or demanding. Both Nell and Fidelia were close calls in terms of more permanent involvement.

Angus, on his home turf, a hermit in a remote house on a remote island should be free of harassments but then Janet, a local barmaid who claims to have second sight, insists on moving in with him. She intends to have an affair with Angus to make her golf-obsessed, philandering boorish prig of a husband, Douglas, jealous. Angus isn’t comfortable with Janet moving in, but there are no other female prospects on the island, and she is beautiful. Plus there’s something about Janet–her determined willfulness that brooks no argument.

Angus is already set for domestic trouble but then the past converges upon him in the form of both of his former mistresses. Nell has run away from Bruce, her cheating, golf-loving husband, and Fidelia, with her child in tow, is on the run from her wealthy, powerful husband.

There’s a lot of humour here in Poor Angus: almost Shakespearean in a way, and most of the fun comes when the two abandoned husbands, Douglas and Bruce meet and immediately hit it off; after all they have so much in common. Both men are addicted to golf, but beyond the fun of the sport, it’s an easy way to access sex with female golf players. In spite of the fact the stuffy, self-righteous Douglas and the affable Bruce have been serially unfaithfully, they both blame their wives for running away.

The two abandoned husbands have dinner together and with Bruce loudly swearing his head off (“he’s an Australian, of course,”) they commiserate, dishonestly, about the vagaries of their wives and their respective golf handicaps.

“She’d got it into her head I didn’t want her any more. I guess I was doing a bit of fucking around. She was drinking too much and letting herself go to fat.”

The two old ladies were fairly enjoying their roast lamb.

“Her age, the doctor said. Menopausal stress. Poor Nell. Have you any kids, [Douglas] Maxwell?”

A few pages of Douglas and Maxwell, who unsurprisingly hit it off immediately, and we can see just why Nell and Janet were attracted to Angus as an antidote, but when aggrieved husbands and disgruntled wives converge on Angus’s retreat, the women suddenly see Angus’s horrible shortcomings as they wrestle with the knowledge that the antidote, hothouse nature of extra-marital affairs precludes judgement. Three very different misused women and four very different dickhead men. Douglas and Bruce hide their bad behaviour behind their golf, but is Angus so very different? Does he hide his bad behaviour behind Art? The scene is set for both comedy and disaster:

“All I want is to be left alone to get on with my painting. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Why can’t you all leave me alone?”
“You use people, Angus. They don’t like being used and then thrown away like paper hankies.”

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jenkins Robin

Monogamy: Sue Miller

“Love isn’t just what two people have together, it’s what two people make together.”

Sue Miller’s novel Monogamy examines the marriage of Graham and Annie married now for almost 30 years. The novel begins, appropriately with their meeting. They’ve both been married before, and (in theory) have learned from their mistakes. Annie discovered a deep incapability with her first spouse which led to divorce and now she’s had a series of casual relationships. Graham’s marriage ended when his wife Frieda, who’d been talked into an “open” arrangement realised that while this deal suited Graham, she could no longer endure a relationship that knew no sexual boundaries.

Annie meets Graham at a party celebrating the opening of his bookshop. They hit it off immediately and are soon a couple. They marry and almost 30 years later, Graham has become a significant figure in the community while Annie finds that she has allowed her career to be subsumed by Graham’s needs. Not that Annie resents that; she’s happily married and loves Graham. He’s a man of vast appetites and somehow along the way, Annie has been absorbed into Graham’s social circle.

But things are going well, career-wise for Annie. After neglecting her career for decades, she’s now had a few shows and even published a book.

What she wanted now, she realized, was to give up on people. Or more accurately, to see them differently, to imagine them differently, through their absence. To make images that said something about the people who weren’t there. She thought of some of the painting of Vuillard, or Bonnard–the figures half seen, the rooms themselves often more the subject than the people in them. But rooms suffused with the feeling of a liminal presence. Or with the feeling of absence–but an absence full of implication, of mystery.

So here’s Annie who has moved from photographing people and capturing the intimate sometimes even “murderous” glances sent from one spouse to another, to photographing rooms and houses–noting the absence of people–“images that said something about the people who weren’t there.” Does Annie realise that she’s possibly trying to capture the problems in her own life? Larger-than-life Graham is ‘there’ but absent. Yes, there’s still a relationship, communication and sex, but something is ‘wrong.’ It’s as though part of Graham is absent…

Well Graham, back to that man of huge appetites, is having an affair. It’s not the only affair he’s had while married to Annie, but it is the most dangerous one. Just as things come to a head, Graham dies, and Annie, at first his grieving widow, discovers the affair, as we knew she would and then she struggles to balance grief at the loss of her husband with anger that he betrayed her.

Monogamy is at the root of this story. Sooner or later we come across articles or books that argue that monogamy is impossible, and that’s certainly true for many people. But others, Annie, for example, and Graham’s friend John cannot imagine having an affair. It’s over lunch with John that Graham, who hasn’t been honest with himself since he started the affair, reveals his puerile nature. While the exquisite descriptions of Annie’s work reveal a deeply serious and intense nature, Graham’s bonhomie life covers a stunted career and a man who has created a persona for himself which he wears like a suit of clothes. 

After Graham’s death, and what a turd to die before he gets his comeuppance, Annie retreats into her grief. She cannot confide in her daughter or Graham’s son from his first marriage, and then she discovers that Frieda, Graham’s ex-wife knew all about the affair….

A lot of the tension seeped out of the book with Graham’s death. Was he going to tell Annie? Was ‘the other woman’ going to sabotage his marriage? What would happen to their marriage in light of his adultery? Those questions dissipate into grief and depression as Annie struggles with the new, toxic version of her relationship with Graham–the bastard who had the audacity to die before he had to face the consequences of his actions. Instead of tension, Annie’s grief and depression become paramount.

How well do we know those we live with? Can a marriage survive adultery? In the wake of Graham’s death, Annie struggles to find a mental place: should she feel grief, should she feel anger? This reader had a very clear reaction, but that’s easy for me to say since I had no investment in Graham whatsoever. Consequently I became impatient with Annie and wanted to smack her upside the head which probably isn’t fair, but we bring ourselves and our experiences to reading. Can’t help it.

Review copy.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Miller Sue

Good Women: Jane Stevenson

It’s a good rule of thumb not to get involved with a woman you meet while she’s masturbating on a train, but when it comes to Freda Constantine, successful architect, David Laurence opts for self-destruction or maybe it’s just excitement or the constant sex. Both David and Freda are on the Edinburgh train when their uncontrollable sexual desire leads to an affair. The affair leads to a break up of two marriages with David leaving a perfectly good wife and two daughters. David’s career, which had been bolstered by his Scottish wife’s connections, also suffers. But nothing is keeping David from Freda. He says “she felt like the woman I was meant to have.”

Good Women

Light My Fire, the first of three sharply funny novellas in Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, charts the trajectory of David’s catastrophic relationship with Freda. There’s a sort of madness here, and David’s obsession with Freda is marked by a need for possession–even though he knows she’s trouble–even though he knows “she was a woman you couldn’t trust if you couldn’t see her.” 

At least there weren’t any kids on the other side. I was so obsessed with Freda I’d’ve carried on regardless even if she’d been a mother of ten, but the Fredas of this world, thank god, are strictly ornamental, like those strange toys you’re not supposed to give to children. A perfumed garden, not a fertile field. She’d never wanted kids, she told me, to my unspeakable relief. I’ve got a couple of pals who’ve settled into this grotesque pattern of finding someone new around the time that the current wife’s just about got number two potty trained , and starting all over again. What a carry-on. There must be some kind of death wish involved–fifteen or twenty years of pampers and sleepless nights, it’s a thought to freeze the blood. 

Knowing that he will have to impress “high-maintenance” Freda in a big way if he wants to keep her, David buys a wreck of a 16th century house “in the middle of nowhere.” At first she’s impressed as it’s “practically a castle.” But then she sees inside…

Oh the wonderful scenes at Scottish Christmas party There’s a point at which men’s envy of another man’s sizzling hot new wife turns to amusement:

I could see people I knew glancing at her and then at me. Cool, amused glances.

Light My Fire is wickedly funny in its portrayal of a man who destroys his life in order to possess a woman who is nothing but trouble. David knows Freda is selfish, self-serving, grasping and not particularly bright, but all these negatives are wiped out by his need to sew up her sexual exclusivity. The passionate affair boils down to two wildly disparate people, whose tastes, goals and ambitions are worlds apart, and that’s ok for a while … until reality sets in.  

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this book. Another post (or two) on the rest of the book to follow ….

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction

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.

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hall Araminta

The Blessing: Nancy Mitford (1951)

“I  wish I understood Americans,” said Charles-Edouard. “They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.” 

The delights and hazards of marrying out of one’s culture are explored with style and wit in Nancy Mitford’s light, entertaining novel, The Blessing. The introduction to my copy states that this is the author’s most “personal” novel as it “explains in barely veiled terms” why her love affair with a “womanising Frenchman” lasted for over 30 years. 

When the book opens, it’s WWII and Grace Allingham receives a visitor to her father’s county home. The visitor is Charles-Edouard, a man who met Hughie, Gracie’s fiancé in Cairo. While he could bring tidings, instead Charles-Edouard starts paying attention to Grace. A month later, he proposes, Grace accepts, they marry, and two weeks later, Charles-Edouard returns to Cairo. The war rages on, and it’s 7 years before Charles-Edouard returns to Grace, and by this time, they have a child named Sigismond, the ‘blessing’ in the title.

The blessing

It’s easy to see that there will be problems ahead. Grace’s father wasn’t keen on his daughter “marrying a Frog.” He guesses that Charles-Edouard will not be a faithful husband, and senses that his daughter, who is blissfully happy at the family country estate tending goats, is ill-equipped for life in French society: “she would be a lamb among wolves.”  Trouble immediately begins, although the pliant Grace doesn’t see it, when the day after Charles-Edouard returns from the war, he whisks his wife and son off to France, with no notice whatsoever, to his family’s country estate, Bellandargues in Provençal. She meets his grandmother, the Marquise, his Tante Régine, and his grandmother’s lover, an elderly man who sports a pale green wig. Through this initial introduction, she learns, but fails to absorb, that lovers are openly accepted, not hidden away–at least not in Charles-Eduoard’s circle. Charles-Edouard’s family give Grace the once-over, decide she’s lovely, but that there will be problems ahead ahead–mainly due to extra-marital affairs. 

Charles-Edouard’s family think “the English are very eccentric,” and that “they are half mad, a country of enormous, fair mad atheists.” They can’t understand what “induced” him “to marry an Englishwoman–these English with their terrible jealousy.” For when it comes to infidelity:

It is quite different for a Frenchwoman, she has ways and means of defending herself. First of all she is on her own ground, and then she has all the interest, the satisfaction, of making life impossible for her rival. Instead of sad repining her thoughts are concentrated on plot and counterplot, the laying of traps and springing of mines. Paris divides into two camps, she has to consider most carefully what forces she can put in the field, she must sum up the enemy strength, and prepare her stratagem.

Then Grace is whisked off to Paris–just as she was getting used to the French country estate (belatedly she learns that her husband hates country life), and it’s here, mingling at dinner parties and soirees in Paris, we find Grace mostly out of her depth–especially when she realises there are a string of other women in Charles-Edouard’s life. …

Several nations are skewered here. From child-rearing, marriage, adultery, diet, the fun comes from the clash of cultures. There are a couple of English ladies Charles-Edouard decides are lesbians: “Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?” And then there’s Grace’s old school friend, Caroline; Charles-Edouard doesn’t get the schoolgirl crush thing, and insists on calling her a lesbian too. Caroline is now married to an obnoxious, loud, know-it-all American, Hector Dexter who, unfailing tells everyone around the dinner table exactly what’s wrong with their respective countries. France is, according to Dexter, suffering from “a malaise, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness,” while England, “this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down.” And of course, Dexter also thinks that Americans have superior morals when it comes to marriage and adultery:

We, in the States, are entirely opposed to physical relations between the sexes outside the cadre of married life. Now in the States, it is usual for the male to marry at least four, or three times. He marries straight from college in order to canalize his sexual desires, he marries a second time with more material ends in view–maybe the sister or the daughter of his employer–and much later on, when he has reached the full stature of his maturity, he finds his life’s mate and marries her. Finally  it may be, though it does not always happen, that when he has raised this last family with his life’s mate and when she has ceased to feel an entire concentrated interest in him, but is sublimating her sexual instincts into other channels such as card games and literature, he may satisfy a longing, sometimes more paternal than sexual, for some younger element in his home, by marrying the friend of one of his children, or as has occurred in certain cases known to me personally, one of his grandchildren. 

Grace ultimately is attracted to Charles-Edouard because he isn’t English. With him, she avoided a “dull” safe English marriage. Charles-Edouard may be charming, but he has an escape clause for the marriage if it doesn’t work out, and then at one point, we see a callous side when he plots to ruin a carpet Grace makes as he doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, it dawns on Grace “that she was, perhaps, more in love than he was.”

But since the title is The Blessing, the story goes beyond the troubled marriage to Sigismond. Charles-Edouard doesn’t like the British Nanny’s influence, and he wants his son to emulate Napoleon rather than Garth, a British cartoon character. Nanny doesn’t understand what a bidet is: “what is that guitar shaped vase for?” and bemoans the French diet:

Course upon course of nasty greasy stuff smelling of garlic.

In time Nanny finds another British nanny in Paris, and “the two nannies clung to each other like drowning men.” Sigismond grasps that the cultural values and expectations of behaviour from each parent are different, so he learns to manipulate the situation between the estranged couple to his advantage.

The ending was a little too Disney for me. Overly optimistic IMO but no doubt the ending reflected the author’s decisions. This book is a light, amusing treat which delights in Grace’s painful awakening as she realises that when she married outside of her culture, she was unaware that French values would be so different. Of course, the elephant in the room is that no … what’s normal in Charles-Edouard’s aristocratic family is not the standard for the rest of France. Grace did not know the man she married. Frenchman or not. 

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mitford Nancy

Home Thoughts: Tim Parks

“And the people,” he went on, “who crave company are always moving about to get it, or to get a more satisfying version of it, while the people who like to be left alone are always moving about to escape it. It all keeps society in motion and generates a sort of dynamic tension.”

In Home Thoughts from Tim Parks, Julia, a 33-year old Londoner, dumps her job and her married lover for a new life teaching English in Italy. Through a series of letters from various characters, an image of Julia’s life emerges. As she settles into the somewhat miserable, incestuous British ex-pat community, dramas erupt including domestic squabbles, infidelities and backstabbing manoeuvres from various members of the British faculty as they claw to keep their jobs. 

Home thoughts

So a fresh start for Julia who thought her life was stale, but once in Italy, things almost immediately start to go wrong. Her secure job in London has been exchanged for an position that comes with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Her best friend Dinah is exchanged for the militant feminist, highly organized (read exhausting) Flossy who puts herself and Julia on diets with weekly weigh-ins. And then not long after Julia arrives, she becomes involved with Italo-Canadian Sandro–a “smary” sly, opportunistic, Lothario who, although he specializes in poaching married women, is perfectly willing to sleep his way to the top. 

The gym walls were all mirrors so that the chrome of weights and work-out machines seemed to stretch away in all directions. Likewise the bodies of the women doing their exercises. For although the exercise class was open to all, there was a tendency for the men to stay on the weights and leave the aerobic jumping about to the women. Thus, heaving in front of his mirror (mens sana in corpore sano), Sandro could watch not only the attractive flexing of his own muscles, but also the scissoring open and closed of fifteen pairs of legs

Initially, Julia doesn’t realise that “it was herself she had wanted to leave in leaving England.”

She had wanted a metamorphosis. Yet everybody back home had appeared rather to have liked that old caterpillar. […] And so when she had wanted the serial to end, to change her part, they had all protested.

Yet isn’t there a part of Julia that is dismayed when she realises that everyone in England is surviving, possibly even thriving, without her?  Julia writes to her friend, Dinah, brother, and her mother who “seems to be going backwards in time and is now cruising her way through an especially prudish patch of the 1880s.” While Julia ‘let’s go’ of certain aspects of her life in England, easily abandoning her ailing mother, for example, she obsesses on her past with married lover Lenny. She writes long, reproachful letters to Lenny–the man she supposedly left England to avoid. Some of the funniest letters are written by an outraged and disgusted Flossy as she sees women, “slave[s] to traditional conditioning,” continually fall into bed with worthless men. Somehow or another hyper-responsible Flossy always gets the raw end of the deal–from being stuck watching small children while women meets lovers, listening to the plumber lecture her about condoms (used by others) that have plugged up the toilet, to being propositioned by men when their other, more attractive options, run off. 

There’s a host of other characters here–mostly the shallow, self-obsessed British ex-pat community which is composed of men who’ve abandoned England and their first wives (and families) to start afresh in Italy. So with all of our characters, who see the world through the lens of their own problems, the issues they hoped to leave behind in England simply follow them. Alan, Flossy’s brother, who seems to be waiting for some cosmic event to release him from the doldrums, acknowledges he  “lost his way in life,” and writes in his notebook:

My wife: sometimes it’s as though I’d only met her yesterday and were trying to decide whether I really wanted to see her again. 

Minor academics who ostracize themselves abroad, for whatever reason: adventure, travel, a change of pace, to escape something at home, find that it’s not so easy to return, and miserable, depressed Alan is the epitome of this:

What was he doing in Italy in a dead-end job? And what was worse with a time limit attached that would cut him off at precisely the age he became more or less unemployable in the UK? He’d come out here to write (it was the ease of the job that had fooled him) and all they’d done instead was have children.

He had allowed his energies to be dissipated. He had lost his way in life. Friends back home were leaping up the career ladder and he was teaching lousy students where not to put adverbs, getting no useful experience and merely filling wastebins with this trash that no word processor would make saleable. 

The novel isn’t entirely composed of letters. I’d say it’s about 50-50 letters and narrative, and most of the vicious humour is found in the trainwreck of these characters’ lives–in the disasters that occur in between letters and the firm resolves which are followed by awful behaviour. I was waiting for the Italians to toss this lot out of the country. On a final note, we don’t all find the same things funny, and there’s one thing that occurs in the novel that’s in bad taste. But apart from that I liked reading about the messy lives of these Britons who move to Italy only to find that their problems have moved right along with them. 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Parks Tim

Ask for Me Tomorrow: Margaret Millar (1976)

“In this business you see their worst side, until pretty soon you forget they have a better one. And then ten chances to one they haven’t, anyway.”

Margaret Millar’s Ask for Me Tomorrow opens on a hot afternoon in Santa Felicia, California. Immediately we step into a toxic domestic scene. Middle-aged Gilly is watching and talking to her wheelchair bound husband, Marco, a stroke victim. His right eyelid closes and opens “normally,” but the rest of his body is paralyzed. He doesn’t respond to his wife, and he doesn’t seem to register her presence, but in spite of this, Gilly keeps up almost constant conversation. She’s convinced that Marco is aware, at least on some level. Gilly’s efforts are admirable, but there’s also something off about her behaviour too. Is she trying too hard?

Trying was part of her nature, just as giving up was part of Marco’s. He had given up long before the stroke. It was merely a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence.

Gilly is wealthy. She has hired a male nurse, beefcake Reed (think Tab Hunter wearing tight swimming trunks), and there’s also the housekeeper, the extremely religious, nosy Violet Smith who seems out-of-place in the household.

ask for me tomorrow

Through her lawyer, Smedley, Gilly arranges to hire a bilingual, newly graduated lawyer named Tom Aragon. Gilly refuses to discuss anything with Smedley and insists on discussing her case with Aragon at her home. Gilly tells Aragon that she was married before to a very wealthy man named B.J. Lockwood, but the marriage only lasted 5 years and ended when B.J. ran off with Tula, their 15 year-old pregnant Mexican maid. She hires Aragon to travel to Mexico and find out what happened to B.J. and the child he had with Tula.

Well, I’m fifty. That’s not very old, of course, but it cuts down on your alternatives, narrows your choices. There are more goodbyes and not so many hellos. Too many of the goodbyes are final. And the hellos-well, they’ve become more and more casual … I’ve lost one husband and I’m about to lose another. I’m depressed, scared, sitting in that room with Marco, listening to his breathing and waiting for it to stop. When it does stop, I’ll be alone, alone, period. I have no relatives and no friends I haven’t bought.

All a little weird as Gilly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. She arms Aragon with a letter she received from B.J. 5 years earlier. In the letter, B. J. asks Gilly for $100,000 which he says is an “opportunity to invest” in a building project, Jenlock Haciendas, in partnership with another American named Jenkins. According to B.J. “once the Americans get word of it we expect to be deluged with offers.” Yeah right. 

Gilly never sent the money. So Aragon’s task is to travel to Bahía de Ballenas, a place with no roads and no signposts, and discover what happened to B.J. and the child. Aragon goes to this remote, dusty, undeveloped region and ignites a trail of murder. 

Ask For Me Tomorrow is a wonderful book, full of peppy dialogue and quirky secondary characters, the waspish lawyer’s secretary, the pouty male nurse Reed, and Jenkins, the man caught up in the frenzy of dreams of riches. Yes, it’s a crime novel, and while I thought the plot was leading me in one direction, it took me somewhere else. More than anything else it’s about human nature and the bitterness of experience. There’s Gilly’s life story, of how she fell in love with the already married B.J. and how she worked on taking him from his wife, Ethel. He was, she claims, the love of her life, and yet there’s also bitterness there in a conversation she has with Aragon when she describes how B.J. ran off with Tula.

“B.J. always did honorable things, impulsive, stupid, absurd, but honorable. So the two of them rode off into the sunset. It was what they rode in that burns me up–the brand new motor home I’d just bought for us to go on a vacation to British Columbia. I was crazy about that thing. Dreamboat, I called it. On the first night it was delivered here to the house B.J. and I actually slept in it, and the next morning I made our breakfast in the little kitchen, orange juice and Grapenuts. A week later it was goodbye Dreamboat, B.J., Tula and the rest of the box of Grapenuts.”

“What do you want me to do, get back the rest of the Grapenuts?”

And then there’s B. J. What kind of a man was he? Evidently women were his Achilles’ heel but while he seems passive–the sort of man things happen to–he nonetheless manages to stir a maelstrom of emotions. 

It’s funny when you think about it–Henry Jenkins took B.J. from Tula the way she took him from me and I took him from Ethel. We just sort of passed him along from one to another like a used car. Even Ethel, Ethel the Good, she probably took him from somebody else. There was always someone waiting, wanting to use B.J. Where did it all start? The day he was born, the day the car came off the assembly line.

Absolutely fantastic

There are three Tom Aragon novels: Ask for Me Tomorrow, The Murder of Miranda, and Mermaid

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Millar Margaret

An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Moore Brian