It seems bold when an author retells a great classic and places it in a modern setting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Happened to Anna K?by Irina Reyn works (even though I didn’t expect it to), but, for this reader, Dinitia Smith’s The Prince, a retelling of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, does not.
The Prince opens in Manhattan with the signing of a pre-nup and an awkward meeting between Federico, the Italian Prince, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, the very wealthy Henry Woodward. Penniless Federico, who has looks and a meaningless title to recommend him, is about to marry Henry’s only daughter, Emily. Arriving for the wedding from Italy, with a plane ticket courtesy of Emily, is Christina, a friend Emily met in boarding school. Christina, unbeknownst to Emily (and Henry) had a romantic/sexual relationship with Federico. They broke up suddenly when Christina began demanding more from Federico. He was busy loafing and playing in a band “earning a pittance from gigs here and there.” Federico is almost 30, and nearly a year into his relationship with Christina when she starts talking about marriage and a child. Federico “saw an eternity before him, committed to an absolute thing, a marriage. He was practically a child himself. He didn’t have the means to provide for a family, he had no idea what he was going to do in life.” Christina sees Federico hesitate and throws him out.
Federico bounces to Jean Gavron, Henry Woodward’s art advisor, to cry on her shoulder, and Jean points out that Federico probably “just don’t care enough” about Christina to grow up. It’s Jean who introduces Federico to Emily, and suddenly he’s accepting a job that’s smoothly arranged for him in Manhattan and getting married to the very wealthy Emily. Federico is attracted to many things about Emily, but of course these same things begin to grate after a while:
Emily’s lack of knowledge about worldly things, her indifference to them, astonished Federico. Perhaps it was a kind of efficiency of her part because she didn’t have to understand.
Emily and Federico have a child together. Federico quits his job which just emphasizes his kept-man status and ups his uselessness, and then Christina shows back on the scene and quickly huddles with Henry. Next thing you know, Christina is Federico’s new mother-in-law. Ouch!
The plot with its modern setting had a lot of potential. For this reader, Federico and Christina are a couple of good-looking gold diggers who latch on to the money. One intriguing thing is Federico’s resentment of his wife’s relationship with her father, and eventually Christina’s resentment of Emily. But we never get much of a chance to speculate about motivation here as the novel is all tell–thoughts and feelings are fed to us:
Emily didn’t trust anyone to babysit, Federico felt indispensable. He had an important and vital task as husband and father.
Why could she at least not be pretty, not be an eager lover, or be a wife who wouldn’t sleep with her husband? That would justify it. Why couldn’t she be sarcastic or unkind? If she were somehow “bad,” it would make what he was doing all right. She was none of those things, and it deepened his agony.
There’s a listlessness to the superficial characters as they move through their roles towards the limp ending. For all this taboo claustrophobic passion, drama and tacky behaviour, a few flying saucepans (or tiaras) would have been nice. Marriage to titled European nobility was a thing back in the Gilded Age, but here the fact that Federico is a prince doesn’t have quite the same connotation, and thus it’s practically meaningless.
My opinion of the book seems to be in the minority.
Tessa Hadley’s novel, Free Love, a tale of adultery, liberation and secrets, is set in 1960s Britain. The focus is 40 year-oldPhyllis Fischer, the mismatched wife of Roger, a devoted husband and father who has a solid career in the Foreign Office. Phyllis and Roger have two children: Colette, a lumpish unattractive teen, and 9 year-old Hugh. Phyllis has her role as wife and mother–she keeps a wonderful home, cooks for dinner parties, and has a house cleaner. She’s an excellent wife and mother, and yet it doesn’t take much to send Phyllis off the rails.
This is the 60s, and 60s sexuality runs headlong into Phyllis when a young, attractive man named Nicholas comes to visit the Fischers. His parents, Jean and Peter are long-time friends of the family, and Jean sends Nicholas to meet the Fischers since he’s new to London. Nicholas upsets the dinner by engaging with Roger over politics. Phyllis is used to flirting with the men who come her way, but a casual squeeze of Nicholas’s shoulder seems to make him recoil. Phyllis questions her “sexual self” and wonders if she repulsed Nicky.
Phyllis hadn’t known that the young had this power, to reduce the present of the middle-aged to rubble.
Nicky finds he’s attracted to Phyllis–that somehow she doesn’t quite fit the housewife role she plays:
The blurred big mouth-the pink lipstick seeping into the cracks in her lips–gave her away somehow as playful and irresponsible for all her performance as the ideal housewife. No doubt she was as bored as he was, bored to death.
After Phyllis has too much to drink, she ends up kissing Nicholas in the garden. Things should end there, but they don’t. It’s as though all these years, Phyllis has been in her role as wife and mother but that role, like a suit of ill fitting clothing, never felt right. She has secret sexual longings for passion, and her sex life with Roger has always been restrained–companionable rather than passionate. Phyllis had one lover before marriage to Roger–it was a torrid affair that “turned into something ugly, and she’d buried the memory of it, marrying Roger instead and reacting against passion, seeming to see through it and believing she could live without it.“
The memory of passion–the years of self denial erupt to the surface of Phyllis’s life. Phyllis seeks out Nicholas in Boho London and an affair begins. With Nicholas in his 20s on the cusp of his career, and Phyllis almost old enough to be his mother, it’s obvious that this relationship has an expiration date. Phyllis’s quest for liberation–sexual, intellectual, comes at a terrible price.
After finishing the novel, which I enjoyed but found rather sad, I asked myself whether the word ‘free’ in the title was an adjective or a verb. Perhaps both? Did love ‘free’ Phyllis? Is love ever free or does it come with chains and encumbrances? And what of Roger, who is not neglected here–what does Free Love do to his life? Phyllis is not the only one chained to a life that is perhaps not exactly what one would have chosen. When Phyllis decides to leave her family, it’s her choice, yes, but everyone pays the price.
The Vaccination from German author Frank Wedekind is another entry for German Literature Month. Wedekind wrote the Lulu plays which became the basis for the silent film Pandora’s Box starring the intriguing actress, Louise Brooks. The Vaccination, rather like The Seducer, isn’t at all as the title implies. The Vaccination (Die Schutzimpfung), a tale of infidelity, jealousy and deceit, told in retrospect, concerns an affair between the narrator and a married woman named Fanny. There’s the impression that Fanny has strayed before as she’s rather practiced at deceiving her husband.
“You have nothing to fear, darling,” Fanny said to me one lovely evening, when her husband had just come home, “since husbands, by and large, are jealous only so long as they have no reason to be. As soon as there is really a reason for them to be jealous, it’s as if they were stricken with terminal blindness.”
The narrator isn’t as comfortable with this arrangement as Fanny and he’s sure the husband, who sends odd looks his way, “must have noticed something.” Fanny reassures her lover that her husband suspects nothing, explaining the bold “method” she has “devised” which, she insists works, “inoculating him once and for all against any jealousy” and suspicion. She describes how she constantly tells her husband she is “really taken” with the narrator and if she doesn’t “break her vows” of marriage it’s because of the narrator and for “him alone that I have been so unshakably faithful to you.” Fanny swears this sort of talk acts as a vaccination against her husband’s jealousy. The narrator isn’t convinced, but then one day Fanny unexpectedly shows up at his lodgings. There they are, in his small room, both starkers, whopping it up in bed when guess who else pops up unannounced? … Yes the cuckolded husband. So will Fanny’s method of vaccination work?
This tale has an unexpected, delightfully venomous twist in a careful-what you-wish-for sort of way. What a mind Frank Wedekind must have had.
Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.
My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.
Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”
For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.
William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,
While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:
This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.
This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?
Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:
As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filledup the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.
Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.
“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that Ieven wondered this.
And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.”
“You messed around?” I asked.
“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”
“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”
He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.”“You were doing her then?”
“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”
The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:
But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.
Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.
“On Sunday–don’t you think?–certain things come back to you more than on other days.”
Dominique Barbéris’s slim, disturbing novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray explores the fragility of domestic contentment, the lurking dangers of extramarital romance, and just how little we know those closest to us.
The story is narrated by a young married woman, a high school teacher, who drives from Paris to the sleepy suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her elder sister, Marie-Claire. The narrator suspects that her husband, Luc, may be having an affair, and while he claims to be attending a seminar, it seems possible he’s meeting the ‘other woman.’ So the narrator is mulling over these worries on the way to see Marie-Claire, and this all-too-rare visit is an acknowledgement of Luc’s dislike for his wife’s family. He describes Marie-Claire as “boring,” and he also dislikes Ville-d’Avray, a place he finds “depressing.” Ville-d’Avray is a place, but it’s also, as we see as the book continues, a state of mind.
I’m sure that Ville-d’Avray, with its peaceful, secluded streets, its houses set back in their gardens given over to the passage of the seasons as if defenseless against time, has further increased the gap between her and reality. She has formed all sorts of outdated habits
Marie-Claire is married to Christian, a doctor, they have one child together, and share a beautiful home. The two sisters visit, and as the hours pass, the narrator recalls moments from her childhood and the way in which both girls became caught up in the romance of Jane Eyre and the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Whereas the narrator’s focus moved on to other male figures, Marie-Claire “stayed under the spell of that literary love affair for a long time.” During the visit, Marie-Claire confides that she had an “encounter” with the mysterious Marc Hermann, a patient she met at her husband’s practice. Then about a month later, Marc, ‘coincidentally’ happens to drive by Marie-Claire and offers to give her a lift home. The story is a little odd, and perhaps even odder since Marie-Claire asks her sister “what would you have done in my place?” A sure sign that Marie-Claire isn’t telling the whole story and yet wants approval for her decision to get into Marc’s car. The lift home turns into a drive to a cafe, wine, conversation, and a leisurely evening stroll. Marc claims to be a Hungarian businessman in the Import-Export trade. He gives Marie-Claire a business card and asks her to call him. It’s all very vague. A little while later, Marie-Claire thinks she may be being followed. Of course, eventually Marie-Claire calls Marc, and a relationship begins. ….
While the narrator is stunned to hear her sister’s story, and what’s more that it happened some years ago, she begins to slot pieces into the puzzle. She recalls how Marie-Claire once asked “Are there times when you dream of something else?” And while the question is dismissed at the time, the narrator admits that it needles her and awakens vague feelings of discontent.
Her question had stirred up something buried in a secret corner of my mind (or my heart), the old, vague passionate dream, the never-forgotten images of an overblown, schmaltzy romanticism: the pasteboard reproduction of the manor houses, the flames of the fire, the drama, the banks of artificial fog, and looming up from them, “Orson Welles,” the dashing cavalier, the ideal man, the tormented “master!”
This impressive lean story explores the reality of domestic boredom and the dangerous temptation that illuminates one’s discontent. Ville-d’Avray is a real place, a safe suburb, a place many of us would appreciate living in, but here it represents the choices that Marie-Claire has made. The plot is infused with regret which is amplified by quiet, dream-like Sunday afternoons. What is it about Sundays?
“What she wanted to say was-no one is entitled to that much privacy, in a marriage. You can have your separate space, your study, your notebooks, but you can’t have places from which I’m totally banned. I don’t care if you are a writer, I have a right to know what you’re doing in here. I have a right to see the evidence. What other type of man would claim such privilege? Not even the obsessive railway modellers or woodworkers would shut their wives out completely. But this claim to artistic privacy put Arnold-it came to Polly in a sudden flash of unwanted inspiration-in the same category as the husbands who mined new cellarage beneath their houses and lived secret lives there.”
Gerard Woodward’s The Paper Lovers takes a different approach to the subject of infidelity and its fallout in the lives of two married couples, through the lens of religion. Examined here: the necessity of shared values in marriage and possibly the most difficult area of negotiation–the geography of the couple vs. the individual. Arnold Proctor, poet and professor is happily married to Polly. They have one child together and lead an ordered life of shared values. Polly, a one-time publishing house employee now runs a shop called Papyrus and here she makes and sells paper. Occasionally Polly and her husband select poetry to be published by Papyrus, and for each project, Polly makes a special run of paper that complements the poetry in some fashion.
Since Polly has an artistic bent, it’s not too surprising when she hauls out a previously unused sewing machine one day. This leads to an organised sewing evening attended by many other women. Arnold’s presence isn’t exactly welcomed, but it’s during one of these evenings that he notices the alluring scent of one of the women–it’s Vera, a woman he’s overlooked in the past. Married Vera also has an only daughter, Irina, and Irina and Evelyn attend the same school and are the best of friends. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera, and he’s particularly curious that she’s religious. Evelyn’s relationship with Irina allows Arnold to circle around Vera, observe her, and he imagines that her religious beliefs somehow protect him from going any further.
After a few minor social interactions with Arnold exchanging just a few words with Vera, the day arrives when Arnold plans to pick up Evelyn at Vera’s house. There’s some unspoken understanding between him and Vera. With the children watching the conclusion of a DVD for the next 10 minutes, Vera leads Arnold to bed. Then Vera surprises Arnold by rather abruptly arranging sexual assignations. These are conducted at Vera’s home, squashed in between her domestic duties and her runs to pick up her children.
She explained that she was only free during a narrow window in the early afternoon or morning, depending on when her youngest child was at nursery. The hours were 8:30 till 11:45 on Tuesdays, 1:15 till 2:45 on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
She pencils Arnold in with the proficient efficiency of a Madam, and it’s just sex. Vera’s not interested in talking or getting to know Arnold. She wants no nonsense sex with no strings.
The few times Arnold did try to talk, she hushed him quiet, smilingly laying a finger on his lips, as if urging him not to break the precious spell. At first he found this conversational absence a relief. Their relationship was freed from the pleasure of language. But as the weeks went on, he began to worry that their affair existed only for the slaking of Vera’s sexual thirst.
Really, this should be ideal for Arnold who still professes to be happily married, but Vera’s approach bothers him. He can’t align her actions with her religious beliefs. What is he missing here? Shouldn’t she be feeling guilty?
Shared values are imperative in marriage and equivalent relationships, but not so significant when it comes to affairs. Indeed, many an affair is conducted with wildly unsuitable partners and there’s a long list of explanations for that. The idea of shared values appears subtly throughout the novel; at one point, for example Polly visits her parents who berate her for her ‘silly’ profession, asking her how she on earth could “she hope to compete with the likes of WH Smith.” During a visit home, Polly realises the underlying thread in her parents’ lives is the supreme importance of money:
It was all to do with money. Nothing that came into their lives or came out of it did so on anything other than a river of cash.
Of course, Arnold’s tidily conducted affair gets messy, but with religion involved, the plot takes off in ways I didn’t predict. The first half of the book focuses on Arnold, and while his ‘dilemma’ remains at the fore, the novel shifts focus to Polly and her growing consternation at Arnold’s behaviour. Yes, there are many ways to betray your partner as Polly finds out.
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.
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 “irresistiblybewitching 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.
“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.”
“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.