Tag Archives: Monstrous Women

Tension by E. M. Delafield

The English writer E. M. Delafield is probably best known for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a largely autobiographical account of middle-class life in the early 1930s. Tension is an earlier book, first published in 1920 when Britain was still recovering from the impact of the First World War. It’s an interesting story about the damaging effects of gossip – how hard-won reputations can be destroyed by malicious rumours, especially when a manipulative person is involved. On another level, the novel also highlights the limited options available to single women with no husband or family to support them in financing their day-to-day existence.

The novel’s title refers to the tensions created by a new appointment at a Commercial and Technical College in the South West – the main setting for Delafield’s story. As an experienced teacher of shorthand and typing, twenty-eight-year-old Miss Marchrose is well qualified for the role of Lady Superintendent. However, her card is marked when the College Director’s wife – the poisonous Lady Edna Rossiter – recognises Miss Marchrose’s name from an unfortunate incident in the past. Some years earlier, Lady Rossiter’s cousin, Clarence Isbister, was jilted by his fiancée following a life-changing accident – an incident that caused both Clarence and Lady Rossiter considerable distress at the time. Given the unusual nature of Miss Marchrose’s name, Lady Rossiter is convinced that the new Superintendent is the woman who slighted her cousin, so she sets out to ruin her reputation in the most underhand of ways.

Nevertheless, Miss Marchrose proves herself to be hardworking, capable and well-organised – qualities appreciated by College Supervisor Fairfax Fuller, a blunt, plain-speaking man who dislikes any outside interference in his activities, especially from Lady R. Sir Julian Rossiter, the College Director, also takes kindly to Miss Marchrose, viewing her as a good addition to the institution’s staff. But when the new appointee develops a close friendship with Mark Easter, the agent for Sir Julian’s estate, Lady Rossiter sees her chance. As the friendship between Mark and Miss Marchrose blossoms, showing every potential to develop into a romance, Lady Rossiter begins to draw attention to it, dropping carefully-worded hints to other trustees and staff.

“Yes, poor Miss Marchrose. Don’t think that I would willingly say an unkind word about her, for indeed I could never cast the first stone. But I’ve been uneasy for some time, and this afternoon it gave me a little shock to see something—Oh, never mind what! A straw very often shows which way the wind blows.”

Having by this reticence left the simple-minded Alderman to infer the existence of a whole truss of straw at the very least, Lady Rossiter leant back and closed her eyes, as though in weary retrospect. (p. 145)

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mark Easter is already married; however, his wife is an alcoholic, incarnated in a home for inebriates, a fact he shares with Miss Marchrose at an early stage in their relationship.

As Lady Rossiter continues to sow the seeds of doubt about the nature of Miss Marchrose’s character, the reader can only watch as the rumours begin to circulate, giving rise to the uneasy atmosphere and tensions of the novel’s title. While Sir Julian knows full well what his wife is getting up to, he does little to nip her duplicitous behaviour in the bud – opting instead for a quiet existence, despite his disapproval.

Lady Rossiter, on the other hand, is a fascinating creation – a hypocritical, insensitive woman who lacks even the slightest hint of self-awareness. In living her life by the mantra “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?”, Lady R is convinced that her actions are for the moral good, misguided in the belief that she is a shining light to others. Moreover, the Rossiters’ marriage is a loveless one, a union of convenience and companionship – a point made clear by Sir Julian right from the very start. In fact, one wonders whether the lack of romantic love in her own life has made Lady Rossiter somewhat envious when she observes it in others, contributing perhaps to her ‘protection’ of Mark Easter from Miss Marchrose’s charms…

As the novel unfolds, we hear a little more of Miss Marchrose’s backstory as the young woman confides in Sir Julian Rossiter – a friendly presence in a somewhat hostile world. By delving into this in some detail, Delafield shows us how desperately lonely life can be for an unmarried woman in the city, with no husband or close family for support – the long, uneventful days stretching out ahead of her as hopelessness and resignation sets in.

“…But all the time I was more and more lonely, and I used to sit and think in the evenings, wondering how I could bear it if all my life was going to be like that—just working on and on and then becoming like one of the older women at that hostel—there were dozens of them—pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren’t two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to remember, nothing to look forward to—knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world. And they’d got used to it—that was the ghastly part of it—and yet they couldn’t always have been like that…” (p. 120)

In time, we also learn about the circumstances surrounding Miss Marchrose’s aborted engagement to Clarence Isbister – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re not quite as ruthless as Lady Rossiter has assumed.

In summary, then, Tension is an absorbing exploration of the challenges of life for working spinster in the interwar years, not least when there are poisonous women such as Lady Rossiter about. The latter may well have earned her place alongside other monstrous women in fiction – characters such as Flora in Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness and Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s School for Love – each one flawed in her own individual way. There are some good supporting characters here, too – not least Mark Easter’s rebellious children, Ruthie and Ambrose (aka Peekaboo), who provide a little light relief amidst the tensions in the college.

All in all, it’s another fine addition to the British Library’s Women Writers list, a series that continues to shine a light on society’s treatment of women in the early-mid 20th century. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

All this week, Simon and Karen are hosting one of their themed readalongs: the 1951 Club, a celebration of books first published in this notable year. My choice for the event is Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. This brilliant novel features a guardian by the name of Miss Bohun, a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered, either in literature or in life itself. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Recently orphaned following the death of his mother from typhoid, young Felix Latimer is sent from Baghdad to Jerusalem to live with his father’s adopted sister, the aforementioned Miss Bohun – at least until the war is over and he can return to England. (His father, a British official of some sort, was killed by the Iraqis during a disturbance one year earlier.) As the novel opens, Felix is feeling apprehensive about meeting his adopted aunt, a woman his kind-hearted mother never wanted to visit when she was alive.

Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: ‘Oh no, dear one, not there. We’d have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn’t bear it.’ (pp. 7-8)

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Felix finds the formidable Miss Bohun rather brusque and unwelcoming, preoccupied as she is with running the household and preparing the front room for an unspecified guest. (As it turns out, Miss Bohun spends much of her spare time running the city’s branch of the ‘Ever-Readies’ , a religious group that believes in the Second Coming of Christ. Her endeavours to prepare the spare room are closely connected to these activities, a point that becomes apparent as the story unfolds.)

Desperately craving some much-needed love and affection, Felix is terribly lonely and unsettled by his new surroundings. The environment is cold and spartan, with very little in the way of comfort; even the meals are scant and tasteless as Miss Bohun refuses to buy anything on the black market in her quest to save money.

Miss Bohun said: ‘I know no one can take the place of your mother, Felix, but I’m a sort of relative – the only relative of any sort that you have out here – and I want to do what I can for you. It’s my duty, anyway.’

Felix said: ‘Thank you,’ and tried out of gratitude to feel responsive, but the space between them seemed to echo with emptiness. Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. (pp. 15-16)

It soon becomes clear – to the reader at least – that Miss Bohun is a manipulative monster, a rather absurd and disillusioned creature who considers herself a paragon of virtue when in fact she is anything but. She appears to have taken over the running of the house from its former occupant, the Polish refugee, Frau Leszno. Having been relegated to the position of Miss Bohun’s cook/housekeeper, Frau Leszno is currently residing in the servants’ quarters, a reversal of fortunes she deeply resents. In this scene, Miss Bohun tells Felix how she came to live at the house, clearly implying that she was doing Frau Leszno a huge favour by taking control of the situation. Or, if one looks at it another way, Miss Bohun saw an opportunity for personal gain which she seized without a moment’s hesitation.

I happened to knock on this gate and Frau Leszno opened it – a poor, bedraggled, starved thing that started to cry before she’d said half-a-dozen words. They’d already sold part of the furniture at a loss to keep going. Well, I came in and took charge at once. I’m always looking for some way to be of use in the world and here was my chance – the sick old man, and Frau Leszno wailing and lamenting and wringing her hands. She showed me over the house – well, really, I showed her over it – and there were these simply splendid rooms, empty, just what I wanted. I told her I’d take two of two of the bedrooms. “Now,” I said, “you’re not to worry. I’ll look after you.” (p. 31)

Also living in the house are Frau Leszno’s grown-up son, Nikky – a young man whom Felix initially misjudges as being somewhat surly and uninformed – and an impoverished elderly gentleman, Mr Jewel, who camps out in the attic.

In his naivety and innocence, Felix initially finds himself coming down on the side of Miss Bohun in her running battles with Frau Leszno over the various arrangements in the house. After all, his adopted aunt has been charitable in offering him a home. Nevertheless, it would appear that Miss Bohun is profiting out of Felix’s presence by overcharging him for his board and lodgings. She scrimps on everything in the house – food, heating, lighting – basically any kind of warmth or compassion is in short supply. Felix’s only friend is Faro, Miss Bohun’s adorable Siamese cat.

One day, however, everything changes…Into the mix comes a recently widowed young woman, the rather sophisticated Mrs Ellis, who joins the household on the understanding that she will be able to rent the whole house from Miss Bohun at the end of the summer. Naturally, Felix is captivated by Mrs Ellis, particularly as she treats him more like a grown-up than a young boy, taking him out in the evenings and opening his eyes to the wider aspects of life. Moreover, Mrs Ellis is no fool, and she quickly gets the measure of Miss Bohun and her modus operandi. Tensions in the household soon increase, particularly once it becomes clear that Mrs Ellis is expecting a baby — in this scene, Miss Bohun is talking to Felix following a run-in with her new lodger.

‘I don’t want to discuss it, Felix, if you don’t mind. I was quite ready to do Mrs Ellis a kindness if I could – but, dear me, it isn’t everyone nowadays that’s willing to have a baby in their house. I feel sorry for the poor thing – a widow and going to be a mother, it’s very sad – but I have to consider myself, as well, and you, too, my dear boy. I offered you a home. I know young mothers think the world should revolve round themselves and their offspring, but she can hardly expect to deprive you of your home.’

‘She said I could live here with her,’ said Felix eagerly.

‘She did, did she?’ Miss Bohun smiled a sour little smile. ‘So it’s all arranged! I’m afraid you don’t know this town, my dear boy. You are under my protection and I certainly could not let you involve yourself in a situation that might lead to gossip.’

Felix was not clear what Miss Bohun meant by this remark, so did not contest it, […] (p. 121)

As the story moves towards its dramatic conclusion, young Felix discovers that our first impressions of others may not always be entirely representative of their true values. He learns to look beyond the surface, to question the motives and behaviours of those around him, especially when the individuals concerned appear to lack any sense of humanity. As his eyes are opened and the veil of innocence falls away, Felix begins to see another side to Miss Bohun, which is captured in the following quote.

Felix, paused by the table, turned on her a mystified face. He could feel no reassurance in her change of tone: he was fearful and filled with distrust. For a moment, seeing her sitting there calmly and running at will through the gamut of her tones of command, exasperation, self-pity and disapproval, he was suddenly certain of her falsity. His faith in her as a human being had gone and he could believe her to be capable of anything – perhaps even of cruelty to Faro or indifference were Faro suffering. (pp. 221-222)

School for Love is a really terrific book, by turns sad, humorous, insightful and surprising. In its focus on a young boy’s loss of innocence, the novel shares something with Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret, both of which are excellent reads. I couldn’t help but feel for Felix as he tries to fill the yawning gap left by the loss of his beloved mother, a woman who wanted to shelter him from the harsh realities of life for as long as possible. (Felix’s age is never confirmed, but I had him at around thirteen or fourteen, even though he seems quite young for his age.)

In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating character, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? (At several points in the novel, Miss Bohun appears to be manoeuvring people in and out of various rooms in the house as a means of protecting her own interests.) Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? The former, I think, although it’s hard to discount an element of the latter. (The would make a terrific choice for a book group as there’s plenty to discuss.)

The minor characters are beautifully realised too, especially the kind-hearted Mr Jewel who befriends Felix in the latter stages of the book. Before finishing up, I should also mention the Jerusalem setting. Manning spent time in this region and it clearly shows; the night-time scenes in the café bars are particularly atmospheric. There is a real sense of displacement here in a city where resources are scare and accommodation hard to come by.

All in all, this is a wonderful read with much to commend it – very highly recommended indeed.

School for Love is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been eager to return to Elizabeth Taylor for a while now, an author whose work I adore. First published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness was one of Taylor’s later novels, and I think it shows. There is a sense of precision in both the writing and the characterisation that suggests it is the work of an accomplished writer, one in full control of her material. Much as I loved the last Taylor I read – her first, At Mrs Lippincote’sThe Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.

taylor

The storyline in The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. She is married to Richard, her loving husband and hard-working businessman, manager of the family-owned factory passed down from his father, Percy. In addition to Richard, Flora has a close circle of friends upon whom she lavishes her own unique brand of kindness: there is the long-suffering Meg, her closest friend from school; Patrick, the writer who looks forward to Flora’s company as a respite from his work; and Kit, Meg’s younger brother, who quite literally worships Flora, looking up to her as a sort of benefactor or mentor.

While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her good intentions often causing more harm than good. Kit, an aspiring actor, has very little real talent, but Flora encourages him terribly, building up his hopes and dreams with the best of intentions even though everyone else can see how futile and potentially damaging this is proving to be. Flora, however, always thinks she knows what’s best for her friends, even if they can’t see it for themselves. To  give you an example, here’s Flora in action – a scene in which she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend / prospective partner.

‘Why don’t you have a cat?’ Flora asked.

‘I don’t want a cat.’

‘But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.’

‘Well, Percy’s got a cat,’

Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable at all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine. (p. 18)

Right from the start, Flora’s mother, the well-intentioned Mrs Secretan, encouraged her daughter (an only child) to adopt only the rosiest view of human nature; and none of Flora’s experiences since then have succeeded in altering this mindset. To a certain extent, Flora has been shielded from the harsh realities of life by those around her. First by her mother in those early years, then by Meg who recognised that the protective environment nurtured by Mrs Secretan could not be broken down without consequences. Now the bulk of the responsibility for preserving Flora’s happiness has passed to Richard, a task he clearly acknowledges as presenting difficulties from time to time. In this scene, Richard is wondering why he has not told Flora about a chance encounter with one of his neighbours, the rather lonely Elinor Pringle, a woman with whom he has developed a close friendship. While Elinor is not in love with Richard, she values his companionship, someone to talk to and have a drink with every now and again while her busy politician husband is caught up in his work.

To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled. (p. 71-72)

Slowly but surely over the course of the novel, Elizabeth Taylor reveals the true extent of Flora’s lack of self-awareness and her rather blinkered view of the lives of those around her. Flora has very little understanding of the real impact of her acts of ‘kindness’ on her closest friends and family, a point that hits home to Mrs Secretan when she finds this letter from her daughter at the end of the wedding.

Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me. (p. 13)

[…]

She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes. (p. 15)

Mrs Secretan is a typical Elizabeth Taylor character. There is a sense of despondency about her, knowing as she does that a life of loneliness almost certainly lies ahead, now that Flora has flown the nest. There are some priceless scenes between Mrs Secretan and her slightly dotty housekeeper, Miss Folley, a woman whose pride is wounded when she discovers she is the source of some amusement and frustration in the Secretan household.

Flora’s friend, Meg, is another lonely woman; in love with the wrong person – Patrick, the writer, who happens to be gay. She feels the burden of responsibility for supporting Kit, both financially and emotionally, while Flora fills Kit’s head with dreams of an acting career. In the face of diminishing funds, Meg is forced to look for a new place to live, somewhere outside of London. Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, suggests Towersey, a little town by the Thames, and he and Meg spend a dispiriting Saturday afternoon looking at one dismal dwelling after another. Eventually, Meg settles on the least-worst option, the best of a bad lot. Once again, Taylor conveys the quiet tragedy of Meg’s life through her astute observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances – a mood she reflects in the descriptions of dreary Towersey, with its melancholy atmosphere and late afternoon light.

Patrick too has problems of his own, having fallen for the thoroughly unsuitable Frankie, a somewhat petulant and unreliable young man who seems out for what he can get. Flora, for her part, simply cannot work out why Patrick doesn’t ask Meg to marry him, refusing to believe all the talk of him being gay. As far as Flora is concerned, these fanciful ideas are just gossip and conjecture.

While I may have made this sound like a sad novel, there are some brilliant flashes of humour here too. Percy, Flora’s blustering father-in-law, is a marvellous creation, a traditional man with rather conventional views about life and women. He is forever meddling in Richard’s business affairs, returning to the factory and poking his nose into things even though he has supposedly retired from work. Percy features in several wonderful passages, but I couldn’t resist including the following one. Ba – now Percy’s wife – has gone on a trip to France, leaving Percy to fend for himself for a week. As a consequence, he decides to call on Flora in the hope of being invited to dinner. (Alice is Flora and Richard’s baby daughter, Mrs Lodge their housekeeper.)

Mrs Lodge opened the door to him. Although it was only half-past five a faint but appetising smell of roasting meat came up the stairs. It must be a very large joint to have been put on so early, he decided. There would be plenty for him, but he hoped there wasn’t going to be a dinner party. Of course, they lived well, he thought vaguely, taking off his overcoat and handing it to Mrs Lodge, who almost staggered under its weight.

Patrick Barlow stood up as the drawing-room door was opened. Always here, thought Percy. He wondered why Richard did not put his put his foot down. Flora sat on the sofa. Alice was on her lap, having her napkins changed.

Good God, thought Percy. […]

In the drawing-room, he thought. In company. (p. 139-140)

The Soul of Kindness is another brilliant novel from Elizabeth Taylor, one that features so many little insights into different aspects of human nature it’s hard to convey them all here. While Flora’s lack of self-awareness and understanding is a key focus for the novel, Taylor remains mindful of touching on the other major characters and their personal troubles. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness, guilt, and the need for a little warmth or affection. In the end though, the story comes back to Flora and the fallout from her misguided actions. Perhaps only one character in the novel – the bohemian painter, Liz Corbett, a friend of Patrick and Kit – can see Flora for what she truly is: a dangerous and deluded creature. Interestingly, Liz never actual meets Flora in person; she only hears about her through the other characters, which puts an interesting spin on her perspective.

Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves, should you decide to read the book. It’s well worth doing so.

The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.