Tag Archives: miserable marriages

Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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Splitting: Fay Weldon

“Women tend to be more than one person,” said Angel, “at the best of times, Men get just to be the one.”

Fay Weldon’s novel Splitting is a story of marriage, divorce and lost identity.

Sir Edwin Rice is divorcing Lady Angelica Rice, and what a messy divorce this is. Sir Edwin’s divorce petition includes accusations ranging from “lesbianism to bestiality. Bad cooking to adultery.” Lady Rice fights back and “claimed physical assault; over-frequent and perverted sexual activity which led to her humiliation; drunkenness, drug-taking and financial irresponsibility on the part of her husband; she asserted that her husband’s relationship with his dogs was of a sexual nature.” This divorce is going to be dirty.

splitting

When the book opens, Edwin’s lawyer, Brian Moss is dictating to his new secretary, Jelly White. Jelly White is none other than Lady Angelica Rice. It’s a strategic self placement, and it’s a position that comes in handy when you want to stack the deck in your favour.

While the novel begins with the ugly divorce, it then slips back into the past: when middle-class Angelica first meets Edwin, the youngest son of Lord Cowarth. Edwin marries Angelica and they make their home at the “dilapidated manor house” Rice Court. How fortunate that Angelica has a Savings and Loans balance of 823,000 pounds generated from a single hit “Kinky Virgin.” Angelica dutifully hands this sum over to the Land Agent, and then the marital games begin.

A few years into the marriage, cracks begin to show, and the problems erupt over money. Angelica, now Lady Rice, manages her home well, but Edwin is critical. Fissures in the marriage widen when adulterous relationships evolve between the Rices and their friends Rosamund, Susan, Humphrey, and Lambert. This section of the novel seemed to be deliberately confusing. I couldn’t keep track of the bed hopping, and this is partly because everyone lies and they all accuse each other of various affairs possibly to obfuscate the truth.

The “Splitting” of the title occurs though matrimonial discord.

“How dare he!” says a voice in Angelica’s head. “How dare he!” Another one says “don’t rock the boat,” another says “take him upstairs and fuck him,” and Angelica shakes her head to be rid of them, which works.

These voices, which offer conflicting advice lead to a “perforated, split personality.” Not in the strait-jacket lock-up sense, but in the sense of a woman who’s carried a role for years but then with doubt and rebellion gnawing at her mind, loses any formed sense of self  (loyal wife) and ‘splits’ into other possible selves–an “internal war.”

“Pull yourself together, for God’s sake, “Jelly said to Lady Rice, out of the mirror. But she added more kindly, “It’s been a long, hard day.”

“In future,” said Angelica. “we’ll go home by bus, not Underground. It’s easier on the nerves. And do stop crying, before our eyes get red and puffy. Jesus! What a sight!”

“Let’s do downstairs to the bar,” said Angel, “and make out with some rich businessman. Have a fun night out, some sex-good or bad; I grant you that’s a risk. We’ll score if we can and make ourselves some money.”

“Score?” said Lady Rice.

“Drugs,” said Angel.

Lady Rice uttered a little scream.

Lady Rice found herself looking out her best lingerie and trying it on, while Jelly agitated.

Marriage is a union of two people. The ‘me and the we’ positions are the hardest to negotiate, and in Splitting, Angelica gave up her class, her home, her friends, her identity to marry Edwin. She became Lady Rice–a totally different person, and when the marriage falls apart, the identity crisis in which Angelica fights with various splintered aspects of herself, is alarming, funny and bitterly real.

This isn’t my favourite Weldon novel. The affairs were confusing and difficult to follow, and the novel’s premise: a woman whose personality splits into various warring selves adds to the mayhem. That said, the novel is a strong cautionary tale: women who give up their personalities, friends, family, environment and career to adopt a marital role will have issues with identity.

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Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

“Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments.”

Alphonse Daudet’s Artists’ Wives easily makes my best-of-year list. This themed collection of short stories argues “again and again that artists cannot be happily married.” The idea exists (is it broadly accepted?) that Art is a jealous mistress, and Daudet shows this argument to be true, repeatedly, through his stories. Yet it’s not as simple as that: Daudet creates 12 stories, 12 situations if you will, which argue his point from various, cleverly devised angles. The book begins with a prologue in which “two friends–a poet and a painter” spend an evening together. After dinner, the poet, who is single, declares that he envies his married friend, and so a dialogue begins with the painter stating categorically that artists “ought never to marry.”

Here’s the breakdown of the stories:

Madame Heurtebise

The Credo of Love

The Transteverina

A Couple of Singers

A Misunderstanding

Assault with Violence

Bohemia at Home

Fragment of a Woman’s letter found in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs

A Great Man’s Widow

The Deceiver

The Comtesse Irma

The Confidences of an Academic Coat

Daudet doesn’t just create an artist (who by the way can be a poet, a writer, a singer, a sculptor, a painter) who neglects his wife and dallies with his latest muse; no, Daudet is too ingenious for that. He creates 12 different scenarios of domestic hell all built around the complexities and complications of placing an ‘artist’ in the relationship.

Artists wives

Madame Heurtesbise would be arguably the one of the most predictable scenarios were it not for the sting in the story’s tale. Madame Heurtebise is seen as an unpleasant, pretentious woman:

having a certain love for glitter and tinsel, no doubt caught at her father’s shop window, making her take her pleasure in many-coloured satin bows, sashes and buckles; and her hair glossy with cosmetic, stiffly arranged over the small obstinate, narrow forehead, where the total absence of wrinkles told less of youth than of complete lack of thought.

This story, of a writer who marries an unimaginative woman, reminds me of the misery of married life found in George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

The Credo of Love, one of my favourites due to its dark humour, is the story of a woman who dreamed of being “the wife of a poet,” but instead she is married off to a wealthy, older man whose one “passion” is gardening.

She remained like this for a long time, closed in by the four walls of the conjugal garden, innocent as clematis, full however of wild aspirations toward other gardens, less staid, less humdrum, where the rose trees would fling out their branches untrained, and the wild growth of weed and briar be taller than the trees, and blossom with unknown and fantastic flowers, luxuriantly coloured by a warmer sun.

Bored, she turns once more to poetry, and then “at the terrible age of thirty, which seems to be the decisive critical moment for woman’s virtue” she meets “the irresistible Amaury,”

a drawing-room poet, one of those fanatics in dress coat and grey kid gloves, who between ten o’clock and midnight go and recite to the world their ecstasies of love, their raptures, their despair, leaning mournfully against the mantelpiece, in the blaze of lights, while seated around him, women, in full evening dress, listen entranced behind their fans.

Amaury  is “a desperate man such as women love, hopeless of life but irreproachably dressed, a lyric enthusiast, chilled and disheartened, in whom the madness of inspiration can be divined only in the loose and neglected tie of his cravat.”

A Couple of Singers is the story of two opera singers, one male, one female, who fall in love, inevitably, after singing love arias on stage to each other night after night. You’d think this match should work, after all, both husband and wife have the same career, but Daudet explores what happens when one partner in the marriage becomes more popular than the other.

A Misunderstanding is a he said/she said comparison (literally side by side pages) of a bickering couple.

Assault with Violence is a rather funny short story in epistolary form with lawyers writing back and forth and Nina, a woman who married a writer, sending letters about the situation to her aunt “an old maid.” Oh the horrors of married life to a “Bohemian.

A Great Man’s Widow, another favorite, concerns a woman who marries a musician who after 15 years of miserable married life, has the grace to die.

On the high road to fame, over which he had so triumphantly and hurriedly traveled, like those who are to die young, she sat behind him, humble and timidly, in a corner in the chariot, ever fearful of collisions.

But with the death of her husband, the widow finds that she has a newly gained stature: she is now the widow of a Great Man, and she capitalizes on this situation, becomes insufferable, marries a younger less well know musician and incorporates him into the cult-like worship of the dead man.

The Deceiver has a mystery at its dark heart, and The Comtesse Irma, sticks with me still–the saddest story in the collection.

I am impressed by Daudet’s agile mind and the subtle nuances of the stories. In the exploration of human nature, these stories are reminiscent of Balzac. The introduction from Olivier Bernier goes into Daudet’s life along with a description of how he stood as an artist during his lifetime.

Translated by Laura Ensor

 

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The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage: Anja Reich-Osang

“Jutta Abromeit says, he caught her eye and then turned away quickly. ‘He realised that I’d seen through him.’ Scholl, she says, could manipulate people, win them over to his side and implicate them in arguments like key witnesses.”

I read my fair share of crime books–all sorts, non fiction and fiction. Murder is a frequent topic, and of course, the murder of a spouse pops up uncomfortably frequently. In these instances, I always find myself wondering ‘what was wrong with divorce as an option?’ At what point is divorce dismissed and at what point does the plan to, instead, murder a spouse emerge and begin to seem like a good idea? But then this niggling thought occurs to me: years of hatred and loathing (not to mention the financial benefits) must outweigh the risks and fuel the calculations. Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a non fiction book which takes a look at the murder of Brigitte (Gitte/Gitti) Scholl. She was 67 years old, a beautician who lived in Ludwigsfelde, a small and peaceful town south of Berlin. Brigitte’s husband of over 47 years, Ludwigsfelde’s former mayor Heinrich Scholl, was very soon accused and then convicted of the crime. The big question becomes WHY??

The scholl case

After Heinrich Scholl’s conviction, the author, who attended the trial, examined the evidence, accumulated interviews with friends and relatives of the couple, and amassed considerable input from interviews with Heinrich Scholl who also “wrote down and sent [me] memories of his life.” The book goes into some detail into the history of the Scholls and how they slotted into the history of East Germany. Brigitte Knorrek met Heinrich Scholl in  childhood. Scholl had a hard-scrabble childhood while Brigitte’s upbringing was much better. Much to the surprise of their friends, they married in 1964. Brigitte had a child from a boyfriend who drifted away, and Heinrich had fathered a child by another woman. It was a practical decision which seemed to work.

To all outside measurements this was a highly successful marriage. Heinrich Scholl had an amazing political career. He was elected and reelected as mayor repeatedly: “he was everywhere–down in a sewage drain and up on stage with the heir to the British throne.” His wife Brigitte ran a hair salon in their home. They raised her son Frank together, and, rather touchingly I thought, Brigitte had a series of brown spaniels–the first given to her by a boyfriend when she was a young woman.

About half way through the book, I was deep into the history of the Scholls’ lives and still couldn’t anticipate a motive for murder. Yet there were some very troubling signs: affairs, biting the head off a live mouse…

As with many married couples, life changes post retirement. Heinrich retired in 2008, and that meant he spent more time at home. According to the interviews, Brigitte was controlling, humiliated Heinrich and made him live in the cellar. Wait.. wait… Scholl actually had a flat, post retirement in Berlin, self-published an erotic novel, kept a Thai mistress,a sex worker,”  “with high standards” on the side, and depleted his bank account. True, he did return on Friday nights when “he handed Gitti his bag of dirty laundry and worked through her list of chores. If Gitte was controlling, then Scholl had slipped the leash.

At one point, Heinrich was advised by a therapist to write “what bothers” him about his  wife:
Nannies me.

Doesn’t let me hang up my pictures.

Has a cleaning mania.

Treats me like a small child.

No love any more!

Well boo fucking hoo.

Wonder what Gitte’s list would have looked like. …

The author had many face to face interviews with Heinrich Scholl and so we get a lot of his version of events. Sometimes this is just bizarre when placed, without question, in the context of the events. So for example, apparently Heinrich Scholl finds women “hard to gauge. […] He didn’t notice that his wife humiliated him for decades or that his Thai girlfriend, a sex worker, exploited him.” Now think about that. …  Hardly the first man to think that “his relationship” with a sex worker “had been something special.”  At one point, the author asks: “And who was actually the victim here? The women in the gallery were for the most part on Brigitte Scholl’s side: the men on Heinrich Scholl’s.” 

The book seems stunningly hard on Gitte since, after all, she was the one who ended up strangled with a shoelace and buried in a shallow grave right next to the grave of her, also strangled, murdered dog. Scholl comes through loud and clear–although perhaps not always in the way he intended. As usual the victim is silent (and the portrayal somewhat vague in its stereotyping), and yet through the pages I saw glimpses of someone admirable: as a child she “almost always brought hungry children with her” to eat, became a hard working business woman, made floral arrangements for friends, planted flowers for an old friend whose husband was dying, was the only person to send parcels of food for a friend in prison, and wouldn’t increase her prices as she felt her customers had very little money.

And the suicide theory? I’m not even going to address that

review copy

translated by Imogen Taylor

Marina’s review:

Kim’s review

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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And Then Put Out The Light: E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

E.C.R. Lorac’s (Edith Caroline Rivett) very readable Golden Age mystery And Then Put Out The Light opens with massage therapist, Gillian chatting with one of her many clients, Mrs. Bentham. It’s one of those odd intimate and yet non-intimate encounters shared by clients and professionals in which personal information is frequently divulged. This is certainly true in this instance when Gillian and Mrs. Allison Bentham discuss the recent, sudden death of Mrs. Lilian Mayden, a malicious woman who was disliked by everyone in the North Midlands Abbey town of Paulborough (with the exception of her equally toxic housekeeper/ former nurse, Garstang), a snobby little town inhabited by “ecclesiastical aristocracy.

It seems odd that Mrs. Mayden, a “chronic hypochondriac” dropped dead of heart problems when she’d never shown a sign of having cardiac issues before.  But wait … Mrs. Mayden’s previous doctor (now retired) prescribed heart pills to his patient basically to shut her up, but her new doctor said they were unnecessary and stopped the treatment; now Mrs. Mayden is dead. On top of this controversy, Mrs. Mayden’s long-suffering, browbeaten, spineless husband Guy is embroiled with a local girl who is pregnant, and right before Lilian Mayden’s sudden death, Guy asked for a divorce.

Gillian turned and faced her. “Well, it was a horrible thing to think of saying, but a woman like Mrs. Mayden might have made the mildest of men feel murderous.”

“My dear, my dear, never say that again,” pleaded Mrs. Bentham, “and if you hear anybody else saying it, stop them! It’s so easy to say, but so hard to unsay it.”

“But, Mrs. Bentham, no one on earth could think that of Guy Mayden. He’s the kindest, easiest-going fellow, and he was an angel to her.”

“Yes. He was.” Mrs. Bentham gave a great sigh. “You weren’t born and brought up in Paulborough, my dear. I was. I know that under the very shadow of that great Abbey there is more envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitablenness than in any godless ramshackle township in the Middle West. Plant a seed of slander in this soil and it grows. You should know that. You said just now, ‘She tried to ruin me.’ In any other place than this she wouldn’t have had much chance of success, would she?” 

In Paulborough’s claustrophobic snobby society, which runs with Victorian morality (there’s frequent reference to Trollope, by the way), rumours spread like wildfire. Mrs. Mayden, who loved to spread gossip, and even kept records of her malicious scandalmongering behaviour, was loathed and feared by everyone. Yet her death, rather than bury all the tensions in the town, seems to stir things up. First everyone leaps to the obvious conclusion that somehow or another Guy managed to murder his wife (not that anyone blames him) but then other past gossip begins to surface.

“Do you know there wasn’t a place in the town I could buy a bottle of scotch without Lilian finding out and raising hell about it?” He took the glass from her and drank thirstily. “Of course, she was brought up as a rabid T.T.,” he went on. “Before the war I never bothered. We never had so much as a bottle of beer in the house.”

The police arrive on the scene after being informed by Miss Garstang that she believes Mrs. Mayden was murdered. Emma Garstang claimed to know who killed her employer and how. … Enter Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.

At not quite 200 pages, this is a mystery that rips along, and E.C.R. Lorac’s writing style makes this a swift, pleasant read. Well structured dialogue and strong characterisation brings the inhabitants of Paulborough to life. I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and I suspect that most die-hard crime fans will do the same. Still this is an entertaining read that recreates post WWII Britain and its shifting socioeconomic and moral landscape.

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Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis (1929)

Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.

Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.

Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.

One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.

But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.

Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here. 

One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.

He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.

This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”

And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.

We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution. 

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Holiday: Stanley Middleton

We tend to think of a holiday as a pleasant, relaxing perhaps occasionally harried affair, but in Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, following the death of his son and a subsequent separation from his wife, Meg, 32-year-old married university lecturer, Edwin Fisher returns to his old childhood haunts, and the memories of holidays spent with his parents.  This is a melancholy novel in which Edwin, with a great deal of solitary time on his hands, finds his mind returning to his father, and dwelling on the relationships between fathers and sons.

Holiday

As we pass through various experiences, we often reevaluate our parents as human beings. Edwin’s parents are dead and it’s only now that “he admitted his parents’ virtues.” Edwin “never fathomed” his mother while she was alive, and for a time he “hated” his parents “for the shopkeepers they were.” Both Edwin and his sister (now a doctor) are “class-jumping offspring” who left their parents far behind. Thinking back on his relationship with his father, Edwin realises that Arthur Fisher was an enigma.

Fisher never sorted out his father’s views on education, and could make little sense of them now. Both children went to university, and though Arthur grumbled about expense he paid up. Nor did he seem to envy their expertise. His magpie mind stored snippets of information with which he gleefully caught his offspring out, but he never attempted to organise or coordinate his knowledge into a system.

Now that Fisher is old enough to grasp the subtleties of his relationship with his parents, he can appreciate them more, but it’s too late to modify his relationship with them. Similarly, Fisher’s son remains an unknown, an undeveloped personality frozen in time. Treading over his childhood haunts, Fisher recalls the holidays he spent with his parents.

Coincidentally (or not) Fisher runs into his in-laws who just happen to be staying in the same seaside town (in a posher hotel). Meg’s father, David Vernon, a solicitor who, in his line of work, sees marriages collapse daily, wishes that the couple would reconcile.

We also see Fisher’s (annoying) wife, Meg, both in the present and in recollection. At one point, Fisher wonders if he should have paid heed to certain “early signs” in her behaviour. Fisher sifts through his memories as though he will find the answer to his unhappiness there, but there’s also the present: a second rate little hotel where he observes fellow guests, walks on the promenade and exchanges a few words with other, often unhappy, holiday makers.

This is a quiet, restrained melancholy novel. While I enjoyed Fisher’s encounters and recollections, the novel’s male characters are better realised than their female counterparts. But perhaps this was deliberate.

And here’s Karen’s review at Bookertalk

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The Stepdaughter: Caroline Blackwood

Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter a short, claustrophobic epistolary novel concerns a woman in her thirties who writes ranting letters in her head, signing them ‘J.’ J is stuck in a large, expensive New York apartment along with her small daughter Sally Ann, lumpish stepdaughter Renata and a young French girl named Monique who’s been sent by J’s absent husband to help with chores and the children. While J may seem to have a fortunate life, materially at least, in reality,  J believes that her husband “successful international lawyer,” Arnold, has pulled a fast one. J and Arnold were happily married, and they had a daughter together. J argues, through her letters, that the marriage hit the rocks when Arnold assumed custody of his teenage daughter, Renata, following the institutionalization of her chronic alcoholic mother.

Everything about Renata I found instantly disturbing. She had poor thin hair which she had dyed a glaring peroxide yellow. She had lazily allowed the roots to grow out, and her skull was shocking in contrast, they were such an inky black. Her face was pudgy with lost, fat-buried features, and her skin was very bad, as if she had always lived on a diet of ice-cream and starch. She was wearing an orange and white T-shirt which had a really bold Californian bad taste. It emphasized the way that her bulging midriff was just as prominent as her bulging belly and breasts, I found myself staring transfixed by the brightness of Renata’s ugly orange shorts, which allowed one to see that her massive thighs were marked like an old woman’s with little pocks of bluish fat.

Renata is 11 when she first arrives, and 13 when the book opens. J, Arnold’s third wife, believes that Renata, a girl who “invites a kind of cruelty,” somehow poisoned their marriage. Both J and Arnold ignore Renata as much as possible, and J finds herself resenting Renata. Renata has a habit of plugging the toilet and she bakes almost nonstop, using instant cake mixes, while leaving the kitchen a total mess. J feeling wronged by Arnold, who is increasingly absent, extorts a new, larger apartment from her absent spouse.

Now J sees her new apartment as her “last resting-place” and is “humiliated now to realize that Arnold was over-feeding me like a fowl when he bought me this apartment. When he encouraged me to furnish it so expensively and promised to find me a French girl to help me with the children, Arnold was treating me like some wretched old bird which is fattened up just before the kill.

J, who is sliding down the rabbit hole without realising it, blames all of her woes on her stepdaughter, Renata. And then J, finally, shelves her resentment long enough to talk to Renata. …

The Stepdaughter covers some universal truths. How, for example, other people can become scapegoats for our problems. In this case, Renata, an overweight, silent 13-year-old becomes the vessel for J’s spleen. On another level, the novel explores the idea of how spouses often reserve their venom for another individual rather than the spouse. Then there’s the whole step-child/step-parent relationship.

This is not an easy book to read. J’s vitriol seems all too real which is evidence of Blackwood’s talent, but that said, this short tale doesn’t make for easy or pleasant reading. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Renata.

I loved Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. 

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Filed under Blackwood Caroline, Fiction

The Colour of Murder: Julian Symons (1957)

“What can you say about a marriage? You peel off the years, seven of them there had been, like the skin off an onion, and there’s nothing inside.”

John Wilkins is, at least on the surface, an ordinary sort of man. He isn’t a great achiever, and following the collapse of the family business (and the family fortunes), he takes a job with Palings, a large Oxford Street store. Eventually, he climbs the ladder and becomes assistant manager of the Complaints Department. His lacklustre, passionless marriage to May is stale. She’s a social climber who married John thinking he had more potential (and money) but now they are stuck in a rut. To the joyless May, some people are “worth cultivating,” and so the couple’s social life, organised by May, is built on “little dinner parties or bridge parties or television parties.”

And then one day, John meets Sheila, a librarian. …

The colour of murder

The book’s first section is mostly composed of a lengthy statement from John Wilkins to consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Max Andreadis (along with a couple of letters). John opens up to Dr. Andreadis, telling him things he’s told no one else. Following bouts of drinking, John has blackouts, and wakes up with no memory of his actions. Plus then there are hints of a troubled sex life:

I found out something else too, and this was about myself, I had always been I suppose what you might say an innocent young man. I had never thought much about girls, and as I’ve said I had not been successful with them, so that although I knew what to do, I was inexperienced. What you have never had you don’t miss, they say. I don’t know about that, but I do know that now I had May I wanted her. What was more, even in that first week I became aware that I wanted her in special ways and wanted her to do certain things, usual perhaps.

Oh dear.

John’s statement allows us to see into his mind. On one hand he seems like a very ordinary man, unsatisfied with life and marriage, but lacking the energy to do anything about it. At the same time there are troubling hints that he may be a little unbalanced. Yes, the blackouts, of course, but then there’s a stint from the army in his past along with the complaint that “people who hadn’t got a quarter of my intelligence and enthusiasm got one stripe and even two stripes up while I remained a trooper.” Does John have a realistic image of himself? On a couple of occasions, he’s “gone out for lunch, had a couple of drinks, and apparently not returned [to work] in the afternoon.” John seems more concerned that his boss doesn’t believe his story about blackouts than the fact that he’s boozing at lunch until he sinks into oblivion. This latter behaviour doesn’t seem to worry him at all!

John’s life begins to go out-of-control after meeting Sheila. He makes a complete idiot of himself on several occasions, but again, the interview reveals that John is not dealing with reality. Soon he’s fascinated by a murder case in which a man beat his wife to death, and then John hints at divorce to May. When she won’t take the hint, he asks his Uncle Dan the best way to murder someone. Hypothetically, of course.

The book’s second section concerns, yes, you’ve got it, a murder trial. But who has been murdered is The Big Question. As Martin Edwards points out in his lively introduction, The Colour of Murder is a “whowasdunnin.” As the plot, full of colourful characters, progresses in the book’s second section, we eliminate possible victims, and then the book concentrates on the court case. There’s a brassy prostitute, a mild-mannered, humble private investigator, a father who relishes the court case, surreptitiously smuggling custard cream biscuits into the courtroom, and a solicitor who picks his nose. Then finally, there’s John Wilkins, a man whose reflection seems from a shattered mirror. You can’t really tell what is there, how dangerous he is. ….

As noted in a recent read from Julian Symons, The Belting Inheritance, we’ve read this sort of plot before, but the delight emerges in how Symons tells his tale. Symons really is a first class storyteller

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Symons Julian