Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

What is music about? Rebecca West, ‘The Fountain Overflows’

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics, 2011) First published 1956

A while ago I wrote about the spiky charm of Barbara Comyns’ novel Sisters by a River; The Fountain Overflows is also narrated largely from the point of view of a child. Rose seems to be about six at the start of the novel, and is in her early teens by the end. It’s her ingenuously penetrating (and often disarmingly warped) insights into the lives of the adults around her, and sporadically sharp-eyed analysis of her three siblings and other children (‘We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes’), that lend this narrative its pungency, acerbity and lopsided humour. Its stylistic and psychological naiveté are tempered by the maturer reflections of the narrator at the time of writing, fifty years later.

Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows cover VMC editionHere’s how we first see Clare Aubrey, Rose’s mother, once a brilliant concert pianist, now a shabby-genteel Edwardian housewife:

Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face.

The metaphor there is typical of the flashes of menace and cruelty that serve as counterpoint to the surface childlike tranquillity of this dark domestic tragic-comedy. Rose never loses track of the family’s precarious situation, and the always imminent proximity of disaster.

A fleeting reference is made early on to the mother’s having ‘second sight’. When Rose first visits cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance’s house, she and her mother calmly banish malevolent poltergeists by their very presence. Later, Rose is chastised by her mother for using her mind-reading and fortune-telling ability as a party trick. I found this supernatural aspect of the novel rather incongruous and grating.

Her improvident, handsome rogue of a father, who engages in a ‘lifelong wrestling match with money’, gambles and loses what little he earns as a writer. With his scornful manner he alienates the patrons who are impressed by his polemical articles, and dallies with women flagrantly. Yet Rose adores him; all the family do. That’s their problem:

My father, though very cruel, was very kind. [Two pages later:] He was often kind, but he was also ungrateful.

Rose is infatuated with him, but not blind to his selfishness and egregious faults: ‘Human relations are essentially imperfect,’ she muses on seeing a photo of him as a young man. Even his brave intervention to save a murderess, mother of one of Rose’s school friends, shows a thoughtless disregard for the possibly disastrous effect on his family this might have if he fails and goes to prison.

The father’s serial recklessness worsens the already tense marital/familial atmosphere:

We were at first puzzled by the nature of the calamity that had struck our household. We had read a great part of Shakespeare and a good many novels but nothing in them had modified our conviction that Papa and Mamma could not have any very strong interest in each other, as they were not related by blood.

Precocity and childishness combine like this throughout the narrative, but somehow usually managing to avoid cloying (though I found Rose’s attempts to portray little brother Richard Quin as an angelic pet tiresome).

This is Rose on big sister Cordelia, towards whom she tends to harbour murderous thoughts:

At school, we noticed, she got on discreditably well. The wrong sort of teacher liked her in the wrong sort of way, and they were constantly giving her what they called ‘little tasks’ and mentioning her as an example of esprit de corps; and she spoke to them with an air of professed insipidity which we took seriously as a betrayal of childhood. Of course grown-ups wanted children to be blanks, but no decent child, with parents like ours, would encourage them. We saw her paying too high a price for the approval of people who were not Papa and Mamma, and we felt about her as a soldier in a besieged citadel might feel about a comrade who is meditating desertion. Quite often we hated her. But the love of the flesh which binds a family together in its infancy was still strong…Often we loved her.

Poor Cordelia is the only non-musical child, but mistakenly believes her equally talentless music teacher, the faux-bohemian, pretentious Miss Beevor, when she tells her she is a genius violin player. ‘Cordelia is such rubbish’, complains Rose to her Mamma. Cordelia smarts with indignation at the eccentricity and profligacy of the household, longing for normality and to escape: “We are being so badly brought up,” she shrieks at one particularly exasperated moment.

More than a saga about a wildly eccentric family, TFO is really about art, and in particular, music. All four children are trained as musicians by their mother as a means ultimately of earning a living – except for Cordelia, whose beauty they hope will net her a rich husband before she can make too much of a spectacle of herself attempting to perform in public.

This is Rose and twin sister Mary, near the end, discussing their enigmatic, much-loved cousin Rosamund, a beautiful but strangely passive, apparently unmusical girl:

‘…I say, Mary, do you understand Rosamund?’

‘Quite often, no,’ said Mary.

‘Of course, we would find it easier to understand her if she were a musician too,’ I said.

‘Well, she may not be a musician, but she is what music is about,’ said Mary.

‘What is music about?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it is about life, I suppose, and specially about the parts of life we don’t understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.’

This is the first volume in an unfinished trilogy of novels about the Aubrey family. I’ve ordered the next two.

Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.

 

 

 

People should stay in their own homes. Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (first published 1926)

 Rose Macaulay (1881- 1958) wrote 23 works of fiction, many of which, like Crewe Train, were light social comedies. Affinities can be seen with many writers of this genre, from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh –  pretty auspicious company. She’s no match for either of them, but at her best comes close.

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

My Virago Modern Classics edition

There’s little in the way of plot. The protagonist is a 21-year-old woman named Denham – after her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village. She’s described on the opening page as ‘a very self-sufficing and independent child’ – which is putting it mildly: she’s one of the ‘barbarians’, ‘philistines’ and ‘unsociable’ to whom the book is dedicated.

Within the first few pages her Anglican clergyman father dies, leaving her an orphan. After his wife died he’d abandoned the church (he found the duties of attending to his congregation tiresome, with ‘never an hour to [himself]’ – easy to see where Denham got her antisocial tendencies from) and escaped English society by hiding in Mallorca, until the expats and tourists (referred to as ‘born invaders’) found him. From there they headed to even remoter Andorra. Denham is left to grow up more or less feral. Like her father she’s ‘selfish, idle, unsociable’, prefers solitude to company, silence to conversation, her dog and other animals to people (and likes maps, inanimate things, physical activities like ‘boating, fishing and walking’).

When he dies there, her mother’s sister, Evelyn, takes her back to her fashionable Chelsea home where poor, gauche Denham becomes ‘a stumbling débutante’. The rest of the novel relates how she resists ‘the higher life’ that Aunt Evelyn tries to force her to adopt, with varying degrees of success. As Jane Emery says in her introduction to my VMC edition:

It is the story of the trapping of a child of nature by sex, love, marriage, social convention, domesticity, pregnancy, and gossip.

Much more than the two Rosamond Lehmann novels I wrote about last, it gives a jaundiced portrayal of that social world and its viciously back-biting, self-absorbed ways.

The plot is inconsequential, and leads to a narrative with some structural flaws and too much repetition. The romantic interest is neither convincing nor particularly interesting, so I’ll focus on that aspect of the novel I enjoyed immensely – the caustic humour. Through tomboy Denham, often described as ignorant and ingenuous as a 12-year-old boy, Macaulay takes delight in skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of the privileged literary/publishing and upper-middle-class, ‘fussily conformist’ chattering set in London at the time.

Here’s a typical scene of Denham at one of her first formal dinners:

Denham’s aspirations towards the higher life were earnest but fitful, and meals were, for her, off times. She ate stolidly through them, an indifferent Philistine within the gates, gay, informed chatter frothing round her like a play to which she was not listening.

The parents of the literary young man she falls for, Arnold, see her as ‘an untutored savage’.

She converts to Catholicism with stoical boredom, since Arnold expects and wants it. Religion is an area of life to which she is as indifferent as she is to frothy dinner-table chat. Interesting, given that RM was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and had a life-long affair with a former Catholic priest. She doesn’t necessarily expect us to endorse all of Denham’s sociopathic traits, but depicts her as more admirable in her flight from ‘civilisation’ than reprehensible in her uncouth philistinism.

An illustration of this irreverence towards pretentious social cultivation: when Denham visits her paternal aunt, in the far less fashionable role (compared to swanky Aunt Evelyn) of a Torquay dentist’s wife, she’s assured there’s ‘plenty to do’ there at the seaside resort:

‘We have some very bright evenings [says the aunt]. There’s a nice reading circle, too.’

‘A what?’ Denham was apprehensive.

‘A reading circle. You all study some book together, and meet and talk about it.’

‘What for?’

Two final excerpts which I hope encourage you to ignore the fallow parts of this novel and savour the spiky humour in the numerous fertile ones. Arnold publishes a novel. His addition to the fashionable stream-of-consciousness school of writing isn’t openly condemned by the narrator; she simply quotes a piece and leaves us to snort with derision:

‘My religion, all the novelists, is marriage worth while? Love, dove, shove, glove, oh my love I love you so much it hurts, yes marriage is worth while, oh yes, oh yes: oyez all round the town…’ [author’s ellipsis]

 

There were several pages of this.

‘I suppose,’ said Denham doubtfully, ‘Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.’

‘If you’ll think it over,’ said Arnold, rather vexed, ‘you’ll discover it’s the way we all think.’

Denham thought it over, then shook her head.

‘No, I don’t.’

…’[I]f one tries to follow the maze of one’s thoughts, one finds they’re astonishingly incoherent.’

‘But not like that,’ Denham obstinately maintained. [my ellipsis]

Macaulay doesn’t expect us to accept Denham as a literary-cultural critic, just an unaffected person with a finely tuned bullshit detector with a ‘free and practical spirit’.

Finally, when Arnold’s novel gets mixed reviews, the narrative voices his self-serving attitude:

One’s bad reviews are written by one’s enemies; this is one of the laws of the literary world. It is less fixed a law that the good ones are written by one’s friends.; after all, why shouldn’t an impartial critic admire one’s book? If he should abuse it, he proves himself not impartial, but praise is another matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real risk: Rosamond Lehmann revisited

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC cover

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, Pt 2

Last time I considered why Olivia persists with a lover (I’ll call him X to avoid spoilers) who always places his wife first. She seems passively, unreflectingly to accept this ambivalent position, because she’s in love with him. ‘The Other Woman doesn’t make too many demands’, she thinks at one point.

Later in the novel she’s warned off X by a close relative of his, who’s found out they’re having an affair: ‘Don’t waste yourself’, she’s told…

It’s hard to sympathise with Olivia’s wilful submissiveness. People who commented on the novel after my first post yesterday tended to be put off by this.

Early in the relationship her interior monologue reveals of her view of X that ‘he’s a bit weak and in a muddle…’

Olivia appears able to articulate in her thoughts the harsh reality of this affair: he’s unworthy of her, and she’ll never supplant his beautiful wife. Then she dismisses such thoughts.

When they’ve first consummated the affair, the lover says approvingly:

“You’re the only woman who doesn’t go on about things. You leave people alone. It’s so refreshing.”

That’s how he talks.

This is how she thinks about what he’s said:

I’ve got everything…He’s my lover…It was enough. Enough belongs to me…Perhaps not possessive like some women, I’d think, smug. Congratulating myself, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever been very jealous. I suppose it’s not my line.”

That smug complacency passes and she suffers pangs of jealousy about his wife. So why does this apparently intelligent, no longer young and innocent woman put up with a man who seems so transparently to be using her, taking advantage of her compliance?

When he gives her an expensive ring for her birthday, she’s able to see that

It said nothing about us, just brilliant, unimpeachable, a public ring, saying only with what degree of luxury he could afford to stamp a woman.

Ouch. Her acceptance of the situation – of his patronising swagger – is bewildering. Then he gives her a less expensive ring, and she’s charmed, he’s redeemed. He always is. He’s charming. And very rich. Used to getting what he wants. He even utters the ultimate cheat’s excuse, when Olivia challenges him about deceiving his wife: ‘What people don’t know about can’t hurt them, can it? I’m not hurting her as long as she doesn’t find out, am I?’

Olivia says she’d feel worried in his position (or does she mean the wife’s?)

‘I do see how difficult it is for you,’ I said, awfully understanding.

That sounds like self-criticism. She is aware of her illogical acceptance of things. Then his reply:

‘Women are dreadful creatures. They will want to have their cake and eat it too. It’s what they call being honest. If my wife had a lover I hope to God she wouldn’t see fit to tell me so. I call this confession and all-above-board business indecent.’

He talks in clichés, his selfishness is breathtaking. So too, surely, is Olivia’s complicity here? Olivia replies:

‘That’s because you’d feel it was such rotten luck for the other chap to be given away’, I said. ‘You’d mind that almost as much as the unfaithfulness. It wouldn’t be cricket…You don’t like women really, do you?’

‘There’s one or two things I quite like about them,’ he said in that beginning voice, kissing my ear. [My emphasis]

So. Homosexuality ripples through this narrative, as it did Invitation, which I wrote about recently HERE. Could it be that these lovers aren’t quite as heterosexual as they appear?

Shortly before this, soon after that first consummation, Olivia had doubts about whether this was love. She thinks of her closest friends, Anna and Simon:

I love Simon; but that’s different again, never to sleep together, that’s certain…All the same, just then I thought: I love Simon, not [X] – thinking I’d done something against Simon somehow…it was mad of course…

So Simon is gay? At least, unattainable. The lovers spend a weekend in Simon’s country cottage with friends:

Colin and [X] hit it off from the word go…

Olivia’s friend Colin is usually melancholy, but with X ‘His face was alight’ as he frolics in the river, diving from X’s shoulders.

Afterwards, dressing, they stood in the sun by a thorn bush, towels around their waists, lighting cigarettes for each other, slipping their shirts vaguely over their roughened heads, their clear, hard, square-breasted chests – deep in talk, not hurrying, forgetting the rest of us.

This looks very like homoerotic flirtation.

Later, X complacently dismisses the news that Colin is a psychoanalyst (analysis is ‘just an excuse for gutlessness’ in his view). He has ‘too much in the brain-pan, I expect, to settle down’. So it’s not Colin’s intellect he’s attracted to. Olivia’s thoughts on this idiocy:

For the first time I realised it’s no use telling him really what people are like. He doesn’t care to inquire…If I weren’t in love with him, would this matter rather? Might I get irritated? Bored?…[Ellipses Lehmann’s]

Then speaking aloud she feigns happiness with him.

So: she isn’t entirely oblivious of the defects in her anti-intellectual, feckless lover. He may or may not be a philanderer, and a little dim. He may not be entirely keen on women. Why does Olivia stick with him? Is she attracted to men who are unable to reciprocate her feelings? Is this her way of escaping commitment to a banal, conventional partnership with a man?

Another possibility: Olivia is an aspiring writer herself. During the course of the novel, especially when the errant lover goes missing with his wife (or slaughtering wildlife in Scotland with equally boorish gentry), Olivia tries to write again. And fails. She can’t finish anything.

Is the lover then a convenient excuse for Olivia not to try to produce any art herself? She lives in a semi-bohemian world in London, with friends who are photographers, artists, writers and left-wing intellectuals. She likes their company. Appears to aspire to an artist’s creativity.

Perhaps she finds safety in this doomed obsession with X, for whom she neglects her writing. He’s therefore a convenient excuse for inactivity. By committing to him, she’s taking the easier, less risky option. OK, she won’t have domestic bliss, children, a constant partner. But neither will she have to confront the baleful truth if she doesn’t really have the talent to be a writer.

Passivity then as the lesser of two evils. X, the risky, self-centred, dim-witted lover, as a kind of emotional/artistic tranquilliser? A substitute for taking the real risk.

Once again I’d commend blogger Heavenali’s take on this and many more of Lehmann’s works HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

A suitable marriage within easy motoring distance

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936; Virago Modern Classics edition, 1996)

 This novel continues the story of Olivia Curtis, whose first ball at the age of sixteen was the subject of Invitation to the Waltz (1932), about which I wrote recently HERE. Now ten years have passed, Olivia has married a disappointing man named Ivor, and separated from him two years before the novel opens.

Like the earlier novel, there is little in the way of plot — we simply see Olivia enter into a passionate, tumultuous affair with a married man (I’ll try to avoid spoilers).

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC coverThe married lover had also appeared in Invitation. His treatment of Olivia can be generous, chivalrous and romantic, but he also makes it quite clear that he loves his valetudinarian wife, a beauty who had miscarried and therefore forbids sex with him, convinced another pregnancy would kill her. This story looks suspicious when we see how things turn out. The man always places his whimsical wife’s needs first, leaving Olivia in pining solitude much of the time. We never gain insight into the wife’s true identity: all is filtered through what others say, especially her errant husband.

My initial problem with this scenario is that I found the man a selfish cad. He justifies his cavalier treatment of the smitten Olivia by saying he’s never promised her commitment, and that he likes to keep things ‘simple’. This he palpably fails to do.

Olivia, on the other hand, seems to lapse into the role of doormat. She indulges all of her lover’s moods, excuses his absences (and worse), and, if anything, shields him from pain and anguish, even when she’s suffering unspeakable hardship. When she undergoes an emotional and physical crisis, she prioritises his peace of mind at her own emotional (and material) expense.

I found her apparently submissive behaviour irksome at first. But at Bloomsbury Bell, blogger Naomi wrote that she too found this passive role reprehensible in a post-feminist world.

She also raises another possibility, one that I find plausible. Olivia enters into this seemingly doomed, dead-end affair to escape the conventional role expected of women like her. Her more beautiful elder sister, Kate, who we saw in Invitation was admired and envied by Olivia, has married (a man pointedly called ‘Rob’) and produced four children – the domestic life is shown to be draining away all her glamour, vivacity and spirit. The sisters’ roles are reversing.

Early in the novel this is revealed as so often with Lehmann in the free-indirect-discourse modernist style that slides into and out of third- and first-person narrative voices: it’s the moment early on when Olivia is visiting her ailing father. Kate is there at their parents’ house too. The mother sides with Kate, because she is more compliant, saying she’ll drink the soup their mother has made, while Olivia refuses it. Mother says to Kate:

“Yes.” Approval and exasperation struggled in Mrs Curtis’s voice. “You’re a sensible girl, thank goodness.”

As children it was always sensible Olivia who had the ‘big appetite’ and Kate was ‘the fussy one’.

‘“And now I gorge,” said Kate languidly…”It’s motherhood.”

They turn to the merits of women not being ‘scraggy’ or skinny, but ‘nicely covered’ , as Kate now accepts she is (my previous post about Invitation pointed out the focus on desirable female appearance and the importance of looks). But she adds, ominously, that ”as a matter of fact, Rob really prefers them on the skinny side.” Her mother dismisses this ambiguous statement as nonsense: ”Rob has far too much sense.”

Mrs Curtis’s manner conveyed an arch benevolent unperturbed reproach: for Kate, cured of that early tendency to tart defiance…had long since turned out entirely sensible and satisfactory. Kate, bless her, had slipped with no trouble into a suitable marriage within easy motoring distance. As the wife of a young doctor with a good country practice, a solid man, a man with a growing reputation…[but now] they were very cosy, very happy together…[ellipses mine].

The narrative focalises on Mrs Curtis here, taking on her voice (though it’s notable that Lehmann never does this with male characters), slipping into ever more fractured interior monologue:

A comfort, yes, a comfort, now that Olivia…now that [her son] James…phases, we hope; phases, of course…above all, now that [husband] Charles…Saved, but a ruin…I know it…Hush…Pass on. [ellipses in the text]

An unattractive model of the trials for women of married life: is this the kind of fulfilment to aspire to? It’s not surprising Olivia rejects it.

Her own marriage ended in disappointment: Ivor seemed a romantic artistic type, but fell short of her expectations. When she meets up with him again by chance when her affair is in crisis he’s superficially caring and attentive, but spoils it all by suggesting they give it another go – a prospect that appals her. Why turn into Kate, or her mother?

So the lover provides all the sex, companionship and conversation she wants. She’s prepared to forgo the usual benefits of commitment — or even of a true meeting of minds. True, she’s jealous of the languid wife, and longs to have a child of her own, but it’s a price she convinces herself she’s prepared to pay.

As she falls asleep in her parents’ house, in her old room, we are given a Molly Bloom kind of interior monologue. She’d never had a lover before, never tried ‘experiments’,

not because I’m cold, only because of love – because I believe in it, because I thought I’d wait for it, although they said schoolgirlish, neurotic, unfriendly…It was because of you [the lover]. I shall tell him all that. I’ll tell him…He’ll say: I feel the same, it’s worth not spoiling…He’ll say: Darling, I’m so glad…If he were here now…I want him here…[ellipses in the text]

As her thoughts shift to unsatisfactory sexual/emotional experiences with Ivor, they drift off towards the lover and his wife, she longs for his letter:

will it be speaking in his voice; saying darling, saying Olivia darling, will you…

Yes, I’ll say…Yes. Anything you say. Yes. [ellipses in the text].

 

I’m not convinced this entirely represents the kind of compromise/escape Naomi mentions in her blog post, though. This sounds like unadulterated, adulterous romanticism. Olivia is in love with love. Maybe not with the man. This attitude, she reflects dimly, is ‘schoolgirlish’, but also in some ways ‘neurotic’. Why ‘unfriendly’? To the betrayed wife? To potential lovers? Or to herself? As she lapses into sleep her thoughts are significantly ambivalent.

Now I’ve gone on too long. I’ll continue next time with some other suggestions about the intriguing possibilities to be found in this fascinating, subtle novel, and its frank, courageous exploration (portrayal?) of a young woman’s emotional and sexual yearnings and confusions. This is not the simple tale the married lover hoped for. Thank goodness.

 

The cruel mirror of opinion

Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz: Virago Modern Classics, 1981. First published 1932

 A novel about a young woman’s first ball? It’s an audacious premise, but Rosamond Lehmann carries it off with aplomb: my initial reaction is to say it’s in the spirit of Jane Austen, who also manages to take us right into the thoughts and feelings of her young women protagonists, with all their confusion, embarrassments, self-consciousness and wavering self-esteem.

In recent years fellow blogger Ali at her Heavenali site has written about pretty much everything Rosamond Lehmann has written, so I commend you to this post on Invitation

Her review is exemplary, so I shall instead turn to an approach I’ve used before: I’ll focus on Olivia’s clothes, appearances and looks, and how people look at her (and how she looks at herself), and the way they function to point up the drama in the narrative (an idea borrowed from the estimable Moira at her Clothes in Books blog).

Invitation to the WaltzOlivia Curtis wakes on her seventeenth birthday wondering which jumper to wear – the crimson, or the fawn? Her confidence is frail; she’s acutely conscious that elder sister Kate is the family beauty, as the mirror shows her:

She cast a glance at her figure in the long glass; but the image failed her, remained unequivocally familiar and utilitarian.

Earlier she’d been optimistic, determined not to lapse into her usual sense of inadequacy in her appearance – determined to ‘glow’. But the mirror refuses to endorse this mood. Still, she’s starting to experience fitful glimpses reflected there of ‘a new self’, an emerging ‘stranger’ – I’m tempted to call her a dowdy duckling growing into – some kind of swan.

She changes. Looks again in the mirror. Stares into it. More flickering optimism…

But soon the impression collapsed: the urgent expectation diminished flatly…Nothing exciting was going to happen. There was nowhere to go: nobody: nothing to do. In the glass was a rather plain girl with brown hair and eyes, and a figure well grown but neither particularly graceful nor compact…But hope had sprung up, half-suppressed, dubious, irrational, as if a dream had left a sense of prophecy…Am I not to be ugly after all?

There it is: as the narrative drops into Olivia’s first-person voice she lets slip that unflattering adjective, negates it (after those adolescent, truculent complaints), hoping to face down her mirror’s effrontery.

This is good writing, and although I’m a man I can feel Olivia’s fierce desire to look mature, attractive and sophisticated, and her disappointment that her looks aren’t yet fully developed.

The theme of Olivia’s appearance is epitomised by the birthday present she receives at breakfast from her parents: ‘a roll of flame-coloured silk’ from which she’ll have her ball gown made. Her pleasure is deflated by her sister:

‘Yes, I chose it,’ said Kate languidly. Her taste was law. ‘What’s the good of putting Olivia into girlish shades? She’d only look sallow and ghastly.’

When the inept village seamstress, Miss Robinson, completes the dress, however, it’s an unflattering botched job. Once again it’s her sister who delivers the brutal truth:

‘Here. You’ve got it twisted.’ She gave a few sharp twitches to the waist and skirt…’It looks all right. Very nice.’

Her lie is transparent, and Olivia’s grief and humiliation are palpable:

But it was not so…Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy lumpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’

But then Kate points out she’s wearing it back to front. She turns it round:

It was not so bad. It dipped at the back, and there was a queer place in the waist where, owing to a mistake in the cutting, Miss Robinson had had, in her own words, to contrive it. But still, but still…if one didn’t look too closely, it was all right. Certainly the colour was becoming.

Olivia no longer feels a ‘caricature’ of ‘a young girl dressed for her first dance’, and ‘able again to compete with and appreciate others’. Then she looks at Kate, who truly does look lovely, and the doubts return. Kate is hardly propitiatory:

Side by side they stood and looked at their reflections. After a bit Kate said:

‘Thank heaven, anyway, we don’t look alike.’ Olivia ventured:

‘We set each other off really rather well, don’t you think?’ She thought, The younger girl, with her gypsy colouring, afforded a rich foil to her sister’s fair beauty.

The final third of the novel consists largely of dialogue with dance partners and other guests as Olivia’s humiliations continue: the young men are prigs and cads, selfish and heartless; her sister’s betrayals accumulate. But a chance encounter in the garden, where she’d fled the ghastly crowd of privileged, drunken rich boys, with Rollo Spencer, eldest son of the hosts, and then with his kind-hearted father, reveals to her what ‘real people’ are like: not obsessed with themselves and surface appearances.

This is her epiphany: it’s not what the cruel mirror of opinion reflects that counts; it’s ‘kindness, tolerance, courtesy, family pride and affection.’

I’ve started the sequel to this novel, The Weather in the Streets, and hope to write about it at some point soon.

 

 

Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)

 

I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

A quietly heroic woman: Barbara Pym, ‘No Fond Return of Love’

Back in February I wrote about Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952: Excellent Women. No Fond Return of Love came four novels later in 1961. This was to be her final publication before the long hiatus caused largely by her work coming to seem old fashioned, with its casts of characters drawn from the class of repressed and obscure ‘distressed gentlewomen’, fastidious academics, librarians, anthropologists and clergymen, and settings in the non-U suburbs of London and the provinces. The Angry Young Men and new realists had taken over.

Her popularity revived after an issue of the TLS invited prominent literary figures to nominate those writers they considered the most underrated of the century; David Cecil and Philip Larkin chose Barbara Pym. From that point publishers vied with each other to secure her work. Her back catalogue was reissued, and new works started appearing, culminating in the shortlisting of Quartet in Autumn for the 1977 Booker Prize.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

No Fond Return of Love deals with similar characters and issues – the trials and heartaches of a lonely spinster entering her middle years. Dulcie Mainwaring, another of Pym’s characters who likes to feel she’s ‘needed, and doing good’, has recently been dumped by her pompous fiancé– a pretentious intellectual art gallery assistant – leaving her confidence in tatters and her heart broken; she feels ‘relegated to the shelf’. She maintains the curiosity in other people, however, which her self-confessedly dull career as an indexer and researcher for more able, notable literary figures’ books has fine-tuned.

At an indexers’ conference (a typical set-piece portrayed with Pym’s wonderful ear for dialogue and absurd characters behaving ridiculously) she meets Viola Dace (her characters’ names are just right; this one’s is occasionally likened by unkind observers as the name of a fish), who had recently indexed a book by the academic Dr Aylwin Forbes, a handsome but selfish man. Both ladies find him alluring. The scene is set for a romantic plot similar to that in Excellent Women: the central female character is self-effacing and dowdy, but attracted to a dashingly inaccessible and not entirely sympathetic man (he indulges in a caddish flirtation with Dulcie’s new lodger, her 18-year-old niece).

The plots are not particularly where the pleasure resides for me in reading Pym’s work: it’s in the scrupulous examination of relationships, not just of burgeoning romances but also of the setbacks and personal mortifications we all experience in the real world, but which tend to be overlooked in fiction. It’s easy therefore to dismiss Pym’s novels as lightweight or prissy; this is a mistake. She has the psychological insight and ironic technique that’s reminiscent not just of Jane Austen, with whom she’s often compared, but also of that great anatomist of the female psyche, Flaubert.

Her style and tone are quite different, of course, and her novels can be categorised as light comedies of manners. But this is to overlook the subtlety of her characterisation and the richness of her portrayal of the unsung heroines of suburbia.

Let me try to give a brief indication of her qualities.

Dulcie has become intrigued by Aylwin Forbes, and turns sleuth in finding out about him and his family, including his equally attractive clergyman brother, Neville, over whom, as Dulcie blithely points out, women are always likely to ‘make scenes’ over (ie fall in love with them). Viola, who has come to live as a lodger with Dulcie – a comically mismatched pair like Mildred and Helena in Excellent Women – is discussing Dulcie’s quest with her:

‘”I can’t think why you’re so inquisitive. It isn’t as if you’d even met Neville Forbes.”

“No, but it’s like a kind of game,” said Dulcie. It seemed – though she did not say this to Viola – so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play.’

 

Dulcie is one of Pym’s onlookers in life, too emotionally bruised to participate actively, conscious that her chances of finding romantic fulfilment are rapidly waning, and that most of the men she meets are selfish and shallow. As the novel develops, however, so does her self-esteem and courage. In her own way Dulcie is quietly heroic.

 

 

Barbara Comyns, ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’

Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.

Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:

At first, because I wasn’t used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute.

It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).

The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):

Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).

The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.

The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.

Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:

I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.

These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’

It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:

Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.

She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’

I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.