Tag Archives: miserable marriages

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

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 filled up 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 I even 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?”

Indeed.

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.

Review copy

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The Small House at Allington: Anthony Trollope

Back to Barsetshire for the 5th novel in the 6 book series: The Small House at Allington. From the plot description, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book as much as the others in the series, but this book, while it has one subplot that’s rather sad, is also full of humour. Plus some characters get their just desserts, and that’s always satisfying. The theme of marriage dominates here, and there are many aspects to the subject: young women compromising men into marriage, a toxic marriage between two combatants, a man who thinks he’s been cheated by the absence of a dowry he expected, and a couple of old bachelors who have managed to avoid marriage.

At the centre of the novel are two sisters: Lily and Bell Dale. They are the daughters of Mary Dale, a widow whose husband died and left her with little means of support. She has accepted the ‘small house’ at Allington from Squire Christopher Dale, her dead husband’s brother, who lives at the big house. Squire Dale did not approve of his younger brother’s marriage to Mary Dale, and while he loves his nieces and allows the widow and her daughter to live on his bounty, there is no love lost between the squire and his widowed sister-in-law. Squire Dale is unmarried and his nephew Bernard will eventually inherit his uncle’s estate. Squire Dale hopes that Bernard will marry Bell, his favourite niece.

Bernard brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie, to stay at Allington, and while the Dale sisters at first make gentle fun of Crosbie, even thinking he gives himself “airs,” he all too soon wins Lily’s heart. Crosbie proposes to Lily assuming that she will receive some sort of dowry from her uncle. Crosbie, playfully nicknamed “Adonis” by the two Dale sisters, is a bit of a dandy. He earns 800 pounds a year and while he lives well on that amount as a bachelor, it’s insufficient income to support a wife–at least not without significant sacrifices: such as Crosbie’s clubs and clothes, and Crosbie, a self-worshipping creature, winces at the idea of any self-deprivation. Getting cold feet, Crosbie asks the Squire flatly if Lily is to receive a dowry, and when he discovers that she will not, Crosbie feels that he’s been tricked, or deceived somehow into making a proposal. His ‘love’ for Lily is overshadowed by his resentment, and he immediately starts backpedaling. He accepts an invitation to de Courcy Castle and there, feeling resentment about the lack of Lily’s dowry, he’s lured into the snares of Lady de Courcy and one of her unmarried daughters. …

Continuing on the theme of the turbulent layers of matrimony, John Eames, another young man who loves Lily, has become embroiled with his landlady’s wily daughter, Amelia Roper, while fellow lodger Cradell has foolishly fallen into the snares of Mrs Lupex, a conniving married woman who also lives at the boarding house. Mrs. Lupex is married to a drunkard, but there are indications that he’s been driven to drink. The prompt for Mr. Lupex’s vice is of little importance as both Mr and Mrs Lupex are trouble and are only too happy to drag others into the drama of their marital torture chamber.

On the subject of marital torture chambers, mention must be made of the ghastly Earl de Courcy. Before Trollope gives us a peek at the de Courcys’ miserable marriage, Lady de Courcy is not a sympathetic character at all. She manipulates and mistreats Crosbie (not that we mind that much) and pokes fun at Lily Dale (a low blow). Lady de Courcy is seen primarily as a snob who rides high on local society when in reality the de Courcys are an awful family–one might even say trashy. Lord de Courcy is a nasty old man, a tyrant, who insists that he has an audience with his wife every morning. These conferences, which are ostensibly to discuss the household, were “almost too much for her,” as her spouse shouts and gnashes his teeth. She tells her daughter that sometimes she is “going mad” while she listens to his tirades. Here he is exploding about his son, George.

“How long is George going to remain here with that woman?” he asked.

“I’m sure she is very harmless,” pleaded the countess.

“I always think when I see her that I’m sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How can he put up with it! But I don’t suppose he cares for anything.”

“It has made him very steady.”

“And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I’ll tell you what it is–I won’t have it. He’s better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife’s than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won’t have it. D’ye hear?” he shouted at her.

Yes, of course, I hear. I was only thinking you wouldn’t wish me to turn them out –just as her confinement is coming on.”

I know what that means. Then they’d never go. I won’t have it; and if you don’t tell them I will.

The de Courcys create the idea of the power of hierarchy within relationships: Crosbie could lord it over Lily Dale and act as though he’s doing her a favour by agreeing to marriage, but the de Courcys act as though Crosbie’s lucky to share their oxygen. In other words, some characters are nice when subordinate and they have to be pleasant but then they are nasty when off leash. Lady de Courcy treats Crosbie like some sort of peasant go-fer whenever she gets a chance, but then she stands there and takes it when her husband rails at her daily just for fun. Gazebee is in awe of the de Courcys, his in-laws, and yet when it’s his job to reel Crosbie into the family web, he relishes the role, and Crosbie, who used to look down on Gazebee, finds that he’s lower on the de Courcy ladder than even Gazebee.

Crosbie, leaning on the questionable models of Lothario, Don Juan, and Lovelace, abandons Lily in favour of an alliance with the de Courcys. He erroneously thinks he’s made the better bargain but all too soon finds that he is firmly on the “grindstone of his matrimonial settlement.” Serves him right. While some characters dive to the lowest depths of their characters, others rise: Squire Dale learns some painful lessons, and Johnny Eames has his heart broken but grows up in the process. And the de Guests, who are bystanders on the sidelines of others’ lives, become involved in the fallout of Crosbie’s scandalous behaviour, but in their case, it turns out to be a fortuitous arrangement. The de Guests, Bernard’s relations, are not particularly interesting characters–in fact Trollope tells us that Lady de Guest is a “tedious, dull, virtuous old woman” and yet she has a heart. Her brother, the Earl de Guest, has great sympathy for Lily and considers Crosbie to be a blackguard. The initially uninteresting de Guests rise in the reader’s estimation while the de Courcys plummet.

I was a little annoyed with Lily after she is jilted. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to heal. But then I decided that perhaps she’s a little mad. Her behavior rings alarm bells in spite of her outward serenity (or even because of it?). There’s also a subplot concerning Plantagenet Palliser and Griselda Dumbello which is a segue into the Palliser series. Towards the end of the book, the Battle of the Manure which involves Hopkins the loyal, territorial, irascible, gardener is very funny, and his character emphasizes the good, true, steady side of life.

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Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, examines the roles of women in society, the complex nature of parenting and exactly why highly moral people should avoid superficial spouses (relations and friends). Yet why does it seem that superficial shallow people always seem to latch on, limpet-like, to those who have scrupulous morality?

Young Molly Gibson is the only daughter of the widower Dr. Gibson. She’s on a visit to Cumnor Towers, the home of Lord and Lady Cumnor for the once-a-year festival for the peasants to oohh and ahhh while the nobility condescend to share space. Molly is stranded and taken to rest in a bedroom. She’s left to the care of Mrs. Clare Kirkpatrick, a former governess who married and left the family’s employment. But things didn’t go well for Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Her husband died, and left with a small child, Mrs. Kirkpatrick now runs a school and lives for chance invitations to the grand house of her former employer. Her child, Cynthia, is somewhat in the way, and so she’s shipped off to school in France. While Lord and Lady Cumnor give Mrs. Kirkpatrick the occasional charity invitation, she also has her uses, and so she’s put in charge of Molly. This early scene gives us a glimpse of Mrs. Kirkpatrick when she gobbles up the supper sent for Molly and then promptly forgets that the ill little girl is left in her charge. Little did Molly know that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was shortly to become her stepmother. …

This wonderful novel follows the life of Molly Gibson. She’s the only child of the hard-working Dr. Gibson who decides to remarry in order to provide Molly with a mother. Of course there’s a secondary issue of Dr. Gibson’s servants being completely out-of-control, and so a new wife will come in handy when it comes to running the household. Clare is a ‘type’ and if Dr. Gibson had taken more time to consider the matter, he would have run for the hills, but Clare knows how to charm men:

Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accents he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect on his nerves that a cat’s purring has upon some people’s.

Once Dr. Gibson’s proposal is made, Clare, who now reverts to the name Hyacinth, begins to show her true colours. Not that she is a bad woman. No, she’s vain, superficial, foolish, snobbish, selfish. Given that Clare/Hyacinth is treated so insensitively by Lady Cumnor, perhaps we could have some sympathy for the poor former governess, but Clare is always banging on about how sensitive she is–which is just an excuse for her behaviour and her perpetual demands for attention. She’s about as as sensitive as a concrete wall. The nail in the coffin of Clare’s character: marriage to Gibson has rescued Clare from all of her financial worries, but once she becomes Mrs. Gibson she starts acting as though she’s gone down in the world.

The Gibson household, having made the shift to the new mistress (several old servants depart) then adjusts to the arrival of the beautiful Cynthia, Clare’s daughter. While Molly is the heroine, and a great one at that, Cynthia is far more fascinating. And all the young men who visit the house seem to think so too. Two brothers come to visit, Osborne, the eldest and Roger Hamley, the sons of Squire Hamley. Molly has a deep rooted relationship with the family and was much loved by the Squire’s late wife. Osborne is the favourite son, or he was the favourite, and now he’s a disappointment to his father.

Wives and Daughters has a more gossipy feel than Trollope. The author recreates the world of Hollingford–a small town where everyone knows all the comings and goings of their neighbours and scandal provides great entertainment. While villagers gossip amongst themselves, the Miss Brownings act as a bridge between the villagers and the Doctor’s house when it comes to the plot twists regarding the land agent Mr. Preston and Cynthia.

Both Dr. Gibson and Molly keep confidences, and the fallout of these confidences highlights these characters’ moral integrity. Contrast this to the behaviour of the new Mrs. Gibson, who uses information gathered during eavesdropping to further Cynthia’s future. With a mother like Clare, it’s easy to see how and why Cynthia suffered and fell into trouble. While Molly is an open book, if one cares to pry open the pages, Cynthia is entirely different. She’s matured early and without a responsible parent. Both the Doctor and Molly cannot understand Cynthia, and the Doctor, who had a relatively peaceful life before he remarried, finds out the hard way that his wife is a disappointment. Cynthia, however, is a mystery:

She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp.

Molly is a gem, and yet we have probably all had experiences of seeing the quiet ‘gem’ overlooked by the more glittery, worthless types who have incredible plasticity when it comes to beguiling men. Like her father, Molly has never had the experience of dealing with someone as complex as Cynthia, and Molly is far more troubled by Cynthia’s problems than Cynthia is. Cynthia’s “real self was shrouded in mystery,” and while Molly befriends Cynthia and truly loves her, the friendship can only go so far before Molly finds that she faces “a dead wall beyond which she could not pass.” Cynthia acknowledges that she lacks “the gift for loving” (probably inherited) and that becomes painfully true when Molly sees the man she loves fall under Cynthia’s spell.

Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present.

This was a fantastic read. There were times Molly was too angelic, and I sometimes wondered why Dr Gibson didn’t strangle his wife. No wonder he starts enjoying his time away from home. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Gibson moves from annoying to dreadful, and her petulance regarding her husband’s need to treat dying patients shows her true nature and her “superficial and flimsy character.”

But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what’s the use of your father’s going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind?’

The woman just doesn’t get any notions of moral responsibility. She doesn’t act badly from malice, but simply from petulance, selfishness, immaturity and a wildly overblown sense of her own moral standing. Everyone exists to make her life easier–to please her. The sharp delineations of society are very well drawn through the characters’ interactions, and several incidents illustrate how the upper classes feel as though they have ‘the right’ to arrange the lives of the lower classes. But Gaskell also shows us what the lower classes expect from the toffs and in one scene depicts the townspeople as terribly disappointed when the nobility don’t wear any jewels to the local ball. They were cheated of an expected display.

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging -pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short– not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

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A Dark Corner: Celia Dale (1971)

Why don’t we keep him, dear?”

Celia Dale (1912-2011) and Celia Fremlin (1914-2009), both authors of British crime novels (and both named Celia!) excel at establishing the ordinary, the domestic, the mundane, and then weaving in terror. Celia Dale’s A Dark Corner is a perfect example of the author’s favourite themes: Imagine then , it’s a dark, London evening, pouring with rain when Mrs. Didcot, a woman whose poor health and limited mobility keep her at home, hears someone at the front door. It’s a young black man, Errol, soaked to the skin, bent over with a terrible cough. He says he’s “come about the room,” but there must be some sort of mistake. The Didcots, a quiet couple who keep to themselves, aren’t looking for a lodger, let alone advertising for one. But Mrs. Didcot, feeling sorry for Errol, allows him into the house, puts him in front of the fire to dry off and awaits her husband’s return. …

Arthur Didcot, a methodical man who is “as neat as a cat,” decides to let Errol stay, but though he makes the decision, he’s still very cautious about Errol. Arthur checks out Errol’s story, and even rifles through his meagre belongings. Satisfied, Arthur allows Errol to stay and given the attic to sleep in, and Errol is warned not to ‘wander’ about. The idea is that Errol will keep Mrs. Didcot company in the evenings when Mr. Didcot leaves, and while this happens, it soon becomes apparent, Mr. Didcot “cultivated” Errol on Sundays.

The Didcots seem fascinated by Errol “as though he were some rare but domesticated creature whose ways were marvellous.” These are the times of Enoch Powell, and Errol’s quiet demeanor challenges the Didcots’ racial attitudes. Errol’s race plays a twist in this tale, and it’s a devilish twist, breathtaking in its evil.

The Didcots, who address each other as ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ are a joyless couple. Their only child died in an accident many years before, and now Mr. Didcot dominates his wife house-bound wife, Nelly. While he ‘takes care of her,’ the degree of control and dominance are unhealthy. It’s easy to control and dominate the infirm, and this behaviour, which would be screamingly repellent towards the healthy, isn’t quite so obvious when dealing with those with limited mobility. But just what do the Didcots want from Errol? Companionship? Or something more? As Mr. Didcot tells Errol, “you add something, something bizarre.”

There’s a marvellous description of the Didcots’ neighbourhood. It’s over a page long and it evokes a creepiness in its details of houses, mostly neglected:

Some of them were coming up a little; they have pink front doors and a carriage lamp beside it, window boxes and the walls in front of the basement windows have been taken away. Some of them are going down and await development; pale corrugated iron masks their doors and lower windows, their paths are cracked, their gates gone, rubbish is scattered among the sour grass of their gardens, and even to the topmost floor someone has broken their windows.

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An Imaginative Experience: Mary Wesley

While Mary Wesley’s novel An Imaginative Experience centres on two damaged people: Sylvester and Julia, there are other lost and lonely characters: Rebecca and Maurice who circle into Sylvester and Julia’s orbit in a somewhat vampirish fashion. Sylvester is decompressing from his unhappy marriage to Celia–a dreadful woman who has left Sylvester in order to remarry a former husband who has recently become much more affluent. Sylvester and Celia’s marriage was toxic, and Sylvester finds himself emotionally drained. Just as he’s trying to heal, Celia raids Sylvester’s home yet again to carry off loot–items to replace the ones she already took. As readers, we never meet Celia, but we have a solid idea of her character.

Similarly, we never meet Julia’s dead husband Giles–a man who could charm his way through life. Giles was living with Julia’s vile mother, Clodagh, supposedly writing a book while Clodagh footed the bills. After Clodagh broke a leg, Julia came to nurse her mother, was raped by Giles and ended up pregnant. The result was Christy, a little boy who went back and forth between his father and Julia’s house. When the book opens, Giles, who was drunk driving, had an accident which killed both father and son.

So here are the two damaged people–Sylvester and Julia–who connect in a situation involving a sheep. Former policeman, past PI Maurice, now a birdwatcher and nosy parker, begins spying on both Julia and Sylvester. Also in the loop is Rebecca, Sylvester’s pushy overly efficient, former secretary. There are not many characters in this novel, but they can be divided into two camps, the kind and the heartless. The nice people are definitely outweighed by their unpleasant counterparts. Maurice and Rebecca, who have no lives of their own (and I wonder why not???) spend a terrific amount of energy soaking up the details of Sylvester and Julia’s lives. Julia’s story, which should make the average person feel sympathy, only spurs Maurice into cruelty. The book shows the worst and the best of human nature. Kindness goes a long way and how unfortunate that so few of us can show a little kindness when it’s most needed.

The America section seemed over the top to this reader. I didn’t really ‘get’ the character of Julia–a self-punishing woman who married her rapist and nursed her dreadful mother. Similarly, Sylvester was too vanilla for my interest. This is the second Mary Wesley novel I’ve read and I would rate this below A Dubious Legacy.

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The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”

Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.

The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.

Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).

Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.

Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.

The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.

Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:

Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.

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Act of Love: Celia Dale (1969)

There is some terrible flaw in me against which I must always struggle.”

I’ve been on a Celia Dale roll lately: A Helping Hand-is a very credible crime tale of what to do with your elderly relatives when they annoy you. In Sheep’s Clothing– two con-women find that the elderly are easy pickings. Helping With Inquiries concerns the murder of a married woman in a quiet suburb. And this brings me to Act of Love; it’s another crime novel, but this time it’s with a Victorian gothic setting.

22-year-old Bernard West, “Bun” to his family, leaves the impoverished family home to accept the job of tutor to the 2 children of Henry and Isabel Mortimer. The tale is partly narrated by Bernard, who is, as it turns out, somewhat unreliable, or at least less than truthful. We know he’s been “ill” with “brain fever,” but that now he’s “completely recovered.” Bernard’s father, who is another private tutor, is “ruined,” when he “imprudently stood guarantor” for a “rascal who defaulted.” Bernard also has two sisters, doomed to spinsterhood: Agatha and Mary. According to Bernard, all the hopes and fortunes of the family rest with him.

The first few days at Bulmer Hall are not good. Bernard is very quickly relegated to a lowlier position in the household than he expected. Mr. Mortimer, who is pleasant enough, has a very strong personality, disappears frequently to London to indulge his vices, and walks with a cane due to an old wound. His much younger wife, Isabel Mortimer is the snot here. She’s beautiful, a wonderful horsewoman, and she immediately puts Bernard in his place :

She was slender, with dark hair piled high under a small cap, a perfect cameo-line of brown and nose, lips and chin; eyes of the same inky blue as were her daughter’s but cool as ice, as was her smile, which seemed to glide over us all like skates. I had never before seen anyone so perfectly indifferent to other people, so actuated by nothing but the thinnest pretense of politeness.

It’s soon abundantly clear that while the house is magnificent, and while the Mortimers are wealthy, there is something not quite right with life at Bulmer Hall:

Yet it had no heart. It ran with the mechanical motions of a clockwork toy, lifelike but artificial.

The only regular guest at Bulmer Hall is the oily Dr. Brooke, who at one time practiced in the slums of London. He’s seen enough of “the debasement of the human animal” that he is now more or less retired, thanks to an inheritance, with only the occasional wealthy client to fuss over. Dr. Brooke befriends Bernard, and appears to take an interest in the young man’s future. And while at first Isabel humiliates Bernard every chance she gets with “her glance shifting over [him] as indifferently as a searchlight over the sea,” a turn of events throws Bernard and Isabel together.

Act of Love is mostly cleverly constructed, and for a while I thought I was reading something as magnificent as My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately, the book slides into purple prose, with rather long passages so torrid and yet vague that I was forced to reread these sections several times to understand the implications. The ending seemed a little hurried which was unfortunate given the cleverness of the plotting.

Still… I enjoyed the structure if not the execution. The characters are great creations but this is my least favourite Celia Dale to date.

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