Tag Archives: male-female relationships

Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

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Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

“September has arrived, lovely in its weakening light.”

Last year I read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years–a remarkable book which covers  several years in the life of a young Romanian man who faces antisemitism at university and struggles with what it means to be a Jew. The book had a refreshing energy in spite of its introspection, and that same energy is apparent in Women: a book comprised of four connected stories which explore the various phases and complications of male/female relationships.

The first story, Renée, Marthe and Odette is my favourite of the lot. Stefan Valeriu is on holiday in the Alps. He’s a student in Paris; he’s taken his final exams, and now he’s relaxing:

It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue. He can sense it climbing through the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hand, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl … More time will pass–five minutes, an hour, an eternity–and a flickering blue light with vague silver streaks will appear through his closed eyelids. Then it will be eight and perhaps time to start thinking about getting up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. But he’ll remain lying there, smiling at the thought of this sundial he constructed on the first day, using a chaise longue and a patch of terrace. 

This is how the story opens. Its evocative sensuality draws us immediately into Stefan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine the sensations he enjoys: the light, the warmth and the sheer pleasure of leisure time. And then comes the voice of a woman. …

Stefan, as it turns out, is a bit of a player. Circumstances throw him into the company of several women–hence the title. Stefan meets a married couple: Monsieur Marcel Rey and his wife Renée who are on holiday with their small daughter. The Reys, who are both from “old colonial families,” own a plantation in Tunisia. It’s not exactly a life of ease; they sleep with a gun under the pillow.  Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey and seduces his wife.

The intriguing thing here is just what the husband knows or doesn’t know. Is Stefan one of the perks of the holiday? The night before the Reys depart, Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey:

When it is completely dark, the lights of the train station far beyond the lake can be seen, and the Paris train at midnight, like a thick articulated phosphorescent snake. They pause in the middle of their game and watch it disappear.

–We have a rough life, says Monsieur Rey, breaking the silence. I don’t regret it and wouldn’t change it. But it is tough. I’m sure Renée has tears in her eyes watching that same train, which she won’t be taking again for who knows how many years. Maybe never. That doesn’t scare me, but you see, there’s something in me, a kind of affliction, that gives me pause. I know it’ll pass. It will pass for her too. Work takes care of all that. The sun, the plantations, the desert, the breeze at night, the Arabs…. But you have to understand how different things are here, how appealing it is and how a woman in particular would find it all irresistible…

So that’s Renée, the unhappy plantation owner’s wife. Then there’s Marthe, a beautiful, calm “regal, cinematic, and eternally beautiful woman,” who is pursued by Stefan. The pursuit is flavoured by the presence of another young man who appears to be a competitor for Marthe’s affections. And then there’s Odette: a free-spirited young woman who is alone at the resort.

The best scene in this wonderful section concerns Monsieur Rey’s hobby of filming the guests, and one evening the guests sit down to watch Rey’s film. The film’s revelations make Stefan extremely uncomfortable. (I thought of Alda Alda in Crimes and Misdeamours. Alda Alda plays Lester, a television producer and Clifford, played by Woody Allen makes a documentary of Lester’s life.)

In the second story, Émilie, time has moved on. Stefan is the narrator who tells the tale of a young woman who is a virgin; Stefan is a witness to her sad tale. Renée, Marthe and Odette explored many aspects of male-female relationships (flirting, pursuit, high drama, adultery, adulation) but Émilie, is almost painful in its train-wreck bleakness.

The third section, Maria, takes the form of a letter to Stefan. Stefan declared his love and the letter is Maria’s response which, in essence details of her relationship with another man. In the final section, Arabela, Stefan once more is the narrator, but in this case he tells of his prolonged, ultimately anticlimactic, love affair with an acrobat.

The first story is superb, and the others, while good, cannot match its excellence. There’s something magnificent and timeless about Renée, Marthe and Odette and the way Stefan observes and loves each woman in his own way.

There haven’t been many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average attractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better-looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests.” Still, I’ve never met a woman–and I’ve been in love with some of them–who has ever given me the sense of cool sensuality that I found in Arabela’s arms, as I inhaled the smell of her warm, lazy, indifferent flesh.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

“Once I wrote to an asylum to take me in.”

The Puzzleheaded Girl from Christina Stead is a collection of four novellas, all of which explore that tangled, complicated relationships between men and women. Stead seems to aks if one gender will ever understand the other, and the resounding answer is  …. NO. The first novella in the collection, The Puzzle-Headed Girl is the story of a man, Debrett, an idealist who employs a young woman named Honor Lawrence as a filing clerk. He offers the young woman a job out of pity as she obviously needs money and is poorly dressed. Over a number of years, Honor drifts in and out of Debrett’s life, always with some strange story, sometimes cadging meals or money. Debrett, “a married bachelor,” thinks she has “principles” and admires her, even as he scripts her life with wrappings of romanticism, but as she repeatedly inserts herself into his life, it becomes clear that Honor is unbalanced. Debrett rather dimly asks himself,“Was she just a child; or a free soul?”

For its tone and pacing, The Puzzle-Headed Girl reminded me of A Little Tea, A Little Chat although of course the subject matter is entirely different.  In both books, Christina Stead shows the separate worlds of men and women. Particularly enjoyable is the idea that a lower-level of craziness can pass for quirks or principles in the young (or wealthy).

The puzzleheaded Girl

The Dianas is the tale of Lydia a rather giddy young woman who’s unleashed in Paris. We first see her in a hotel juggling dates with various men and contemplating marrying a Frenchman. While she says she can’t make up her mind which man to go out with that evening, she spies Russell, “someone she recognized, a middle-aged American with a half-bald sandy head and fat sandy face, an upstate professor of psychology,” a friend of her mother’s. Lydia decides to torture and humiliate Russell. It’s fairly easy to see Russell as Lydia’s victim. Perhaps Lydia is giving Russell a taste of his own medicine, or perhaps she’s just practicing on someone she can easily outclass.

The third novella, The Rightangled Creek, is quite different from the rest of the stories: it’s the tale of a ramshackle cottage which is inhabited by a number of couples over the course of a few years. When the story opens, Sam Parsons returns to America and visits Laban and Ruth Davies, a couple he met in Paris. Laban is a writer and a raging alcoholic and the idea of stashing him in the cottage out in the middle of nowhere is essentially to ensure that he will stay dry.

They had been lodging in artists’ colony but spotted this farm and rented it for $12  a month. Laban is writing a book, “a history of European culture,” drinking three or four pots of coffee a day while Ruth grows their food. They invite Sam and his wife Clare to join them. The Davies’ plan is for Laban’s book to sell which will enable them to buy the farm and send their son, Frankie to Princeton.

Ruth is mother, wife, caretaker, nurse,  housekeeper, jailer and general drudge to her husband Laban, and while she realizes his weakness when it comes to alcohol, she will go to any lengths, sacrifice everything, for this man.

“We save money here, I do everything,” she said in her warm round voice in which there was a strident note.

Over the course of the novella, some past incidents reveal how insane Ruth’s relationship is with Laban.

The fourth novella, Girl From the Beach, is the story of a man named George, a womaniser who blames all of the women in his life for his actions. Again his rants led me back to the character of Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat. Robert Grant and George are two slightly different versions of the same man. George has a number of ex-wives, a “swarm of little-girl gadflies.” And it’s not easy to nail down how many ex-wives there are but he admits to “three in this country.”

“I wanted to get married. I fell in love with each; and each one,” he said, getting red and shouting, “did not love me; or only as children love. Marriage was an outing. Papa would buy the candy and the ride on the loop-the-loops. I can pay. Don’t worry about my health.”

And:

American girls are bloodthirsty. Their honour is in sucking a man dry; then they throw out the corpse. Why, I have known women here who destroy a man’s happiness and faith in himself, ruin his career, divorce him, turn his children against him, blacken his name to all his friends, suck him dry, and then marry him again to show they own him.

And, of course when George rants about the venal nature of women, he’s trying to persuade another victim to take a trip down the aisle. George eventually meets another woman, Linda who seems to be a prototype of Lydia in The Dianas.

Putting all four novellas together and examining them as a whole, I was struck by the significance of a few things. 1) Paris appears in all four novellas. Stead uses Paris rather as Forster used Italy: people go wild there. Take the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and in Stead’s novels it becomes “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.”

Oh, Paris is an obsession; I feel it like paprika. And then the men fluttering round, so aimless and asking you to decide. 

Male-female relationships dominant here, and it isn’t pretty. One character in The Puzzleheaded Girl brags about his spouse: “My wife’s as good as two hired men”–shades of the much abused Ruth in The Rightangled Creek. I was also struck by the reoccurring character of  Robert (A Little Tea, A Little Chat) George (Girl From the Beach) and even, if we stretch it, Laban (The Rightangled Creek)–men who want the women in their lives to be all aspects of the feminine ideal while they are … well …dickheads.

Review copy

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