William Gerhardie, ‘Of Mortal Love’

There are bad or badly flawed women in post-1900 literature who annoy (even repel) but also interest us as readers, charm us or the men they encounter (and usually hurt): there are any number in the hardbitten crime novels that inspired the Film Noir femmes fatales, for example. Then there’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a character I have never managed to find attractive, despite the radiant beauty and cinematic presence of Audrey Hepburn in her portrayal of her).

Often treacherous or unfaithful, promiscuous or superficial, in the hands of a gifted writer they can still intrigue us, or else there’s some redeeming feature – a sense of sadness or regret, perhaps, or else the men who love them counterpoint their selfishness with a weary resignation or high-minded tolerance of the suffering they cause – I’m thinking of poor Guy Crouchback’s serially unfaithful wife in the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the similar betrayals by Sylvia of her stoically faithful husband Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Brown’s modernist tetralogy Parade’s End (broadcast with partial success and some outstanding performances on Britain’s BBC 2 in 2012).

And of course there’s Evelyn Waugh, who in many (especially earlier) novels delighted in portraying scheming vixens (the amoral Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust is an example), offset by male victims usually too stupid, spineless or unimaginative to inspire much sympathy. The socialites and dandies in Brideshead Revisited are drawn with layers of complexity and nuance, and an often ironic witty ambivalence, that enable us to see beneath the characters’ apparent superficiality and place them in a socio-historical context that resonates.

Gerhardie, Of Mortal Love

My Penguin Modern Classics edition was published in 1982

I find William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love a pale imitation or reflection of Waugh’s satirical acerbity, with a touch of Wildean (or would-be Wildean) epigrammatic humour; its depiction of foppish bohemians and glittering but vacuous debs and artistic types lacks Waugh’s or Wilde’s exuberant edge and mordant wit. Gerhardie is too in love with the very characters who inspire in me a sense of repulsion and distaste. I’m conscious of the fatuity of disliking a novel because one dislikes the central characters, but hope my rather rambling introduction to this post indicates that I’m capable of enjoying a good, well-written novel about nasty characters. This is a bad, often well-written novel about nasty characters. I’ll try to substantiate this claim.

The protagonist is a composer called Walter, a penniless Londoner whose initial success in the concert hall has not been consolidated by his subsequent work. Although he’s an indefatigable womaniser, he falls in love with Dinah Fry – a woman who we’re frequently told is the most beautiful in London. The fact that she’s married doesn’t deter either of them from starting an affair. Her justification is that her husband is dull and doesn’t pay her anywhere near enough attention, whereas Walter makes an effort to make her feel wanted.

When his attentiveness falls away, because he’s immersed in composing a new opera, she simply goes back to the boring spouse, who has realised he wants the fickle Dinah after all. She also keeps a fop called Eric on hold in case circumstances change.

That’s the plot, pretty much. There’s some rather horrible anti-semitism and casual racism – inexcusable even for the historical period (the rise of fascism is noted with chilling insouciance by these amoral egotists).

Gerhardie has Dinah gush nonsense and baby-talk with Walter in some hair-curlingly awful scenes (‘kissy-kissy’, ‘drinky-drinky’), and her egocentricity is matched only by her lack of empathy with anyone. Even with Walter she’s really just defining herself through his adulation: ‘concentrate on me’ is her mantra. The opening section of the novel is called Woman is not Meant to Live Alone, which is Dinah’s sole rationale for her promiscuity and infidelity.

Here’s the opening of Ch. 4, which should give a fuller indication of her nature:

Dinah was like a plant, who had been starved of sun and rain, and after a shower and a warm day had blossomed out. Walter attributed to his own ministrations the welcome change. He saw before him a young woman who had been starved of love and was now blooming and content. [Dinah meets his mother and this passage continues:] Dinah, when Walter next saw her, never mentioned his mother to him. She was completely uninterested. Walter discovered that though Dinah could be charming to people while she was with them, she contained in herself a supply of attention and concentration for two people only – herself and Walter.

Despite the superficial gloss of the prose in this free indirect discourse, in which form the whole novel is narrated, this is poor, clichéd and fatuous. Although Gerhardie presumably intends a certain satiric irony (Walter is hardly the most reliable of narrators), he surely expects us to find Dinah, as Walter does, disarmingly ingénue and attractive; she has the opposite effect on me. When she’s out walking with Walter, for example,

she held him by one finger like a dog on a leash. If Walter lagged, she tugged at his finger and – ‘Walky-walky,’ she said, prompting him like a child.

As their affair cools, Dinah’s importuning and petulant jealousy of any woman Walter might possibly encounter (‘Be nice to me’ she simpers) unsurprisingly begin to grate even on him.

I’m afraid I found Gerhardie’s misogynistic portrayal of women poorly disguised in the attitude of the Wildean character of Walter’s roué: the world-weary artistic self-proclaimed genius cannot commit, but Dinah’s childish self-centredness is so egregious it’s unbelievable that he could even contemplate a lasting relationship with her, so incapable is she of any kind of mature emotional engagement. When he tells her how heartbroken she has made him by abandoning him for the pedestrian husband, Dinah is genuinely astonished:

Walter [near the novel’s end] remembered how at one time when he had been cold and selfish in love she had finally demanded a less one-sided arrangement: ‘I want tenderness, and I’m damn well going to have it.’ 

She had had that, too. She had had everything, it seemed, and she would not have you think otherwise.

 The final section is intended to tug at our heartstrings; instead I couldn’t wait for the novel to end. It was the last unread book I had with me on holiday in Europe this summer; there was nothing else to read, otherwise I’d have abandoned it unfinished.


13 thoughts on “William Gerhardie, ‘Of Mortal Love’

  1. Enjoyed this post very much, Simon. It serves as a reminder that the quality of the prose does not necessarily a good novel make! Too bad this was your last unread book, but I am almost glad it was as sometimes, a superior analysis of a poor novel provides insights that wouldn’t be available from a mediocre analysis of a great novel. “Complexity and nuance” really says it for Waugh, one of my very favorites, along with Graham Greene (hope spelling right). Both sound like right curmudgeons as human beings, but oh, what artists they were.

    I would almost feel sorry for poor, benighted Mr. Gerhardie, you have quite slashed him to bits, but I do hate misogynists, and the chap is off to a better place now and beyond all this. Your vignette brought to mind a very “writer-y” or “poet-y” character one sometimes finds hanging about the wine and cheese table at a reading. They will speak to you with one eye scanning the crowd for someone more “important” to talk to, are usually wearing a scarf, don’t listen to the other readers, and, when they finally go on, are usually a huge disappointment.

    Very serendipitous, but this also related to something I was pondering in another area (the horror genre). You have the powerful original (“Brideshead,” Frankenstein, etc.) but the successive copies (of copies of copies) fade and become worn and trite.

    The fatuousness likely can’t be helped. I imagine that springs from the core of the writer. He no doubt considered him a “peer” of Waugh, if not better, and likely couldn’t understand why the world did not recognize his genius! Having a lot of fun with this because it is such a familiar and fun character. Simon, I can very much imagine you writing a wonderful novel about a hopelessly fatuous and deluded novelist. Would you be willing to try?

    Take care, hope all is well with your students!


    • Oh dear, wasn’t my intention to dismember Mr G, though from what I’ve read about him he wouldn’t have taken much notice. Oddly enough a chum of mine wrote the (I think) only biography of him, now out of print with OUP. Know what you mean about the ‘type’ hanging round the book reading (from my very limited experience of such things). Maybe I’m being uncharitable in suggesting his was a pale imitation of Waugh or even Wilde – he was sui generis – but the style and subject-matter look very similar. There are some passages of good prose, but much of it I found overblown and just plain bad. As for the challenge to write such a novel – maybe one day! Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. You were a perfect gentleman, it was the work you dismembered, not the human being…:) I will be the first in line to read your novel(s).


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  4. Just finished this book. It was in my stack of to-be-read (which is actually multiple stacks), and I can’t remember now who or where I was recommended it.

    I wanted to like it, but I think you hit the nail on the head. Who was there to in this novel to care about if not like? No one.

    Since it’s made obvious how the book ends from the first pages, I kept waiting to feel something for Dinah. But, sadly, no. I have an intense detestation for baby talk, so maybe that’s part of it! It was a bit fun to read references to the Café Royal, the Eiffel Tower, and Quaglino’s, but that was fleeting.

    Glad I’ve read it, but I know it won’t linger in the memory.

    • I’m glad to hear you share my misgivings about this novel, Paula. It’s somehow too smug about its own elegant veneer. Thanks for taking the time to comment; it’s good to hear from you.

      • Smug. That’s the word. I HATE smug.

        You’re in Cornwall? I visited there over ten years ago and have always wanted to go back. Parts of the coast there reminded me of Big Sur.


  5. Waugh said of Gerhardie:

    “I have talent, but he has genius.”

    Gerhardie was a far greater and cleverer writer than his contemporaries, as they all agreed at the time. But his genius was too subtle and remarkable for ordinary critics of his day and now. Many folk prefer burgers to chateaubriand and Waugh will remain the mass-market product for years to come.

    • True Reader: I’m always pleased when a comment pops up on an old post, so thanks for taking the trouble and for your visit. What I write about here isn’t intended to aspire to the condition of ‘criticism’; it’s a personal response. Yours was clearly very different. I acknowledge in the post the quality of Gerhardie’s writing, I simply found the characterisation and plotting not to my taste. We’ll just have to agree to differ. I wonder if Waugh was referring in that famous quotation of is to ‘Futility’ – which I have on the shelves, and will certainly read at some point, and which seems to be considered his finest work. I haven’t given up on Gerhardie, and my comments in the post referred specifically to this novel and my response to it, not the author in general. His autobiographical writing is fascinating – as his life was.

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