Finally, I went to London, and finally, I went to Lambs Conduit Street and the Persephone bookshop. Which is much as I remembered it, except crowded with several years’ more books, shining prettily from their shelves. I was tempted by some fabric, and by some of the Persephone endpapers, but I’ll wait until I move and know what to do with them.
As I’d spent a couple of hours on Long Acre before hitting Persephone, my day’s budget was blown beyond belief. I had to be restrained and therefore bought:
- Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, by Penelope Mortimer
- Miss Buncle’s Book, by D E Stevenson
- Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon.
Written in 1958, this is out of the category ‘Bleakly Harrowing Domestic Stories’, that Persephone does so well. Vague, hopeless, unknowing Ruth is unhappily married to selfish brute Rex, who knocked her up when she was a teen so that they were forced to get married. He has never forgiven her for this, and being a bully now provides regular doses of mental torture. Ruth is adrift in and disassociated from her own life, isolated amidst her family:
In all the years of her marriage, a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent, she had learnt an expert cunning. The way to avoid being hurt, to dodge unhappiness, was to run away. Feelings of guilt and cowardice presented no problems that couldn’t be overcome by dreams, by games, by the gentle sound of her own voice advising and rebuking her as she went about the house. ‘Poor old Mum,’ she had heard Julian saying to Angela, ‘she’s going a bit barmy.’ She was still young and her apparently commonplace life was deep with fantasy, full of hiding-places, a maze of secrecy and deceit and hope tunnelled below the unvarying days.
This is at at time in which women were supposed to find fulfillment and content solely by being wives and mothers, particularly in the milieu in which Ruth and Rex live. The husbands go off to the city, being accountants and dentists and bankers. The women live
(L)ike little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb.
The sense is that if that author had chosen to focus on any one of the couples mentioned in the novel, there would have been an unpleasant story to tell. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia, which is later heightened when Ruth has something of a breakdown and her husband hires Miss de Beer to look after her and the house. Miss de Beer is a cross between paid companion, nurse and wardress; she chivvies and orders Ruth, and reports back to Rex, so that Ruth believes her belongings are searched, her correspondence read and her telephone calls listened to.
Ruth is finally roused to some slight defiance when her daughter, Angela, confesses that she is pregnant and asks for help. Angela has no intention of being harassed into marrying her unsatisfactory boyfriend. Abortion, while still illegal, is possible, and none too difficult to find out about. When her family doctor expresses himself disgusted that Ruth would consider such a thing for her daughter, Ruth forms a temporary alliance with one of the other wives and gets the information she needs. It’s a necessarily hypocritical network and another fracture in the facade of happy families, because the women who have abortions are either those that the husbands are having affairs with; or those who have been having affairs themselves.
The most important thing is that Rex doesn’t find out, and he doesn’t. There are some darkly comic moments when he wonders exactly what secrets Ruth knows, suspecting she has discovered his affair. Her habitual vagueness serves her well, but it is habitual. Ruth doesn’t change, isn’t sharpened by the challenge and her circumstances don’t change either. If there’s redemption, it’s that of the next generation. At the end, Angela packs up all her belongings and goes back to college; but she’s still driven there by a male friend.
After that, I turned to something a bit lighter, putting Still Missing aside for another day.
An altogether jollier affair, in which Miss Barbara Buncle writes a novel under the pseudonym John Smith, purely because the dividends have failed her and she needs the money. As she confesses, she has no imagination, and so her book is a faithful depiction of life in the village in which she lives, complete with all its characters. The book goes on to be a best seller, and as the villagers read it, uproar ensues.
It’s not that Miss Buncle has intended to be malicious, simply truthful. So when the unpleasant people recognise themselves, they are furious, simultaneously declaring that it’s nothing like them while demanding an action for libel. They also demand to know who the author is, with the intention of having the man horse-whipped. Eventually, they fix on exactly the wrong person; so that in Miss Buncle’s sequel, which is a novel about a woman who writes a novel about a woman who writes a novel, she is forced to reveal all.
In the meantime, there are some happier results: the unpleasant husband who starts to behave a bit better towards his wife; and the Colonel, who although he doesn’t recognise himself as drawn, sees much of his own life on the page and unwittingly plays out the role he’s given in the novel by suddenly proposing to the beautiful widow.
And there’s something of the Cinderella story too. With the money that Miss Buncle earns from the book, and taking on something of the fictional character she created to represent herself, she gets her hair waved and buys new clothes and becomes altogether less dowdy and downtrodden than she has formerly seemed. To the villagers’ consternation when they finally discover who the revolting ‘John Smith’ really is, she appears to have been whisked away.