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Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

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The Playground: Jane Shemilt

Jane Shemlit’s The Playground concerns three married couples, and their children, thrown together over the course of a summer. Stay-at-home mother Eve, who is more than comfortably off thanks to a generous legacy from her parents has 3 children with landscaper hubbie, Eric. They have an idyllic country home with meadows, woods and even donkeys. Eve is the perfect wife and mother, the sort who makes her own bread–she has an inner tranquility which has a medicated quality. Eve has recently become certified as a teacher of dyslexic children and this move was due to Eve wanting to help her own dyslexic child. Poppy

The playground

Now certified, Eve opens up her home to other parents and takes on Isabelle the daughter of ultra-thin interior designer Melissa who is married to creepy control freak Paul. Also onboard for tuition is Blake the son of Zimbabwe immigrant Grace whose slim income supports the family, barely (including Booker prize novelist dad, Martin).

Day one, things go wrong. But not screamingly wrong. At first it’s subtle: Eve’s husband Eric promised to watch their two other children, but now work commitments demand otherwise. Then Grace leaves daughter Charley at Eve’s house when she drops off Blake for his lessons. So here’s Eve, who planned to tutor 3, with three extra kids: 6 total. Now what can go wrong???? Right away, Eve’s home becomes a sort of playground of dangerous and even sick games for the children, and the adults are so busy with their own issues, no-one notices a thing.

All of these marriages come under scrutiny with Martin working his lazy charms on Eve, Grace agonizing over money, living in a slum, harried all the time, and Melissa worrying about aging and staying in shape–after all Paul has a ‘thing‘ for really young women; he snapped up Melissa when she was 15 (pervie alert), so a mixture of characters–all with their own problems and with the women eyeing each other envying each other in various sad and pathetic ways. …

Sorry but if I went to pick up my kid and the adult watching them had no idea where she/he was, it would be sayonara baby. I didn’t like any of the characters which isn’t a deal breaker for me, as nasty people are usually a lot more interesting than nice ones. In this case, I wasn’t interested in these characters much at all. I wanted Grace and Melissa to whack their husbands upside the head. The Playground would probably slot into the domestic suspense genre and as such it is a slow burn. We know almost immediately that something bad has happened, and so the read is a train wreck waiting to happen.  I wanted to stop the train wreck. 

I used to think truth was a simple thing. That there could only be one truth, single and essential–like light, say, or water. Now I know it comes in layers, some more transparent than others. If you look carefully–and we didn’t–you can see through the top layer to the darkness beneath.

As a reader, I love reading about adults behaving badly, but it’s another thing when it comes to children (and animals), so given the subject matter, this book may not be for all readers.

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So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing (1947)

“There are secret ways of justice.”

So Evil My Love is a novel of Gothic suspense. Hardly my usual read but I came to this book via the ‘Gaslight noir‘  film version (which I’ve yet to see). Author Joseph Shearing is one of the pseudonyms used by Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) who wrote an incredible number of books.

So Evil My love (1947) according to my edition, has some similarities to the case of Charles Bravo, so if you know anything about that case, you know that it involves murder–murder by poison.

The novel opens with 30-year-old Olivia Sacret, the widow of a Dissenter missionary “whose life and death were obscure, who had bequeathed her but a few hundred pounds” and a tiny shabby house. She worked alongside him in Jamaica and nursed him through the tortures of his illness. Now she’s back in England desperately seeking work either with some mission or dissenter society, but no such work is forthcoming. Olivia, the daughter of a doctor who married beneath him, remembers a school friend, Susan. Heiress Susan married, was made a widow and has married again. In between those two marriages, however, she fell in love with a married man. Looking for a suitable position, Olivia reads an announcement in the paper that Susan and her new husband, Martin Rue have just returned home from Florence.

Olivia decides to contact Susan, and even though she despises Susan, Olivia, a festering tangle of resentments, thinks perhaps she can turn the acquaintance to her advantage.

So evil my love

Susan Rue, as it turns out, isn’t happily married. Her second husband, Martin is “jealous, censorious, mean,” and even though he’s a young man, he’s a perpetual neurotic self-made invalid, fussing about his health and dosing himself with various potions.  After Susan foolishly confides her unhappiness to Olivia, Olivia gains “a sense of power,” for “she had regained her old ascendancy over this [Susan’s] weak nature.”

Olivia mentions some letters from Susan she still has in her possession. The letters were written when Susan was a widow and madly in love with the married man. Susan’s obvious fear that these letters still exist fuels Olivia, and she begins to subtly blackmail Susan–moving into the Rue home, siphoning off money, jewelry, clothing.

Then into Olivia’s life, a handsome man appears who claims he’s a painter. He wants to rent Olivia’s now empty house, and after a little flattering attention, gradually Olivia falls under his spell, confiding in him and taking his advice regarding her manipulation of Susan. …

As noted, this is not my usual read, and yet So Evil My Love is brilliantly constructed, it’s gripping. The threat of encroaching evil permeates this incredibly atmospheric novel of deception, blackmail, murder and revenge. Marjorie Bowen, writing as Joseph Shearing nails human nature, and shows how a murderous plot is put in motion with one nasty, vindictive human nature coming under the control of an evil mind–a murderer who gives Olivia a narrative of her life. And that is Olivia’s central weakness: accepting the narrative she wants to hear. Olivia is an incredible, yet credible, creation: when the novel begins, she wraps herself in piety. It’s a costume which allows her to feel superior and to imagine she’s still part of the genteel crowd when she’s long since sunk beneath that–now she’s clinging to the raft of respectability with both claws. Bowen includes some marvelous touches here–Martin Rue’s hothouse of exotic rare flowers, the resentment of the servants, the way in which Olivia brushes over her own evil acts, and the way the ‘painter’ harnesses her resentments for his own gain. 

How little any of it had availed–so much violence, so many lies, such intricate scheming, and she was where she had been, a poor missionary’s widow. It was all the fault of her parents, who had brought her up so poorly, who had cheated her so cruelly, who had never given her a chance.

She made her way home, using that word in her mind, with no sense of how grotesque it was in her case.

The ending is incredible.

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The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

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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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