Novella a Day in May 2022 No.24

The Love Child – Edith Olivier (1927) 138 pages

The Love Child has been reissued as part of the British Library Women Writers series, a wonderful endeavour which has my fellow Novella a Day in May-er Simon Thomas as series consultant 😊

From the opening of The Love Child, I knew I was in for a treat:

“Agatha Bodenham had unconsciously moved a pace or two from the others, and she stood, isolated, near the head of her mother’s grave while the clergyman finished the service. She was wearing a dress of the shape and the tone of black which her dressmaker thought suitable for morning orders, and her hat was quite without character.”

Such a clever opening, and such detailed characterisation in so few words. This continues with clear-sightedness, yet with compassion too.

“She and her mother were women of peculiarly reserved natures, finding it hard to make friends, and holding their country neighbours at a distance. So reserved, too, that they had been barely intimate with each other, living through their days side by side without real mingling of experiences or sharing of confidences. Indeed, they had neither experiences nor confidences to share.”

Now her mother has died, Agatha is deeply, despairingly lonely. It has always been a lonely life in many ways, and she has never had many friends. Then she remembers a childhood imaginary companion, Clarissa. She wills Clarissa back to her, and the scamp – fleet of foot, irrepressible of nature – reappears. It’s not unheard of to retreat into fantasy at times of stress, but what lifts this from the psychological to the fantastical is that other people can see Clarissa too.

“She hardly believed it herself when she thought about it. She just didn’t think about it at all – she lived, and for the first time in her life.”

This presents a particular problem for Agatha as to how to explain Clarissa’s presence, the solution of which is the title.

“There was a special flavour about this scandal, because nobody believed it, however often it was repeated. The thing was unthinkable. To look at Agatha was to know that the policeman’s story was an impossible one, and yet its very impossibility made it the more amusing.”

Clarissa grows up with Agatha and the two are very much bound together. Clarissa encompasses all the behaviours that were supressed in Agatha long ago: appetites for food, for books, for life. However, as a person with those traits grows older, they are naturally going to want to experience more and varied things. Agatha feels Clarissa moving away from the insular world they have created together to beyond Agatha’s limits.

“Now Clarissa would be the guiding spirit, and it appeared she would at once step out of the artificial world which Agatha had created for them to live in, and go to the everyday world which had always been so comfortably and remotely outside, a world which seemed to Agatha at once more commonplace and more disconcerting than their own.”

In many ways The Love Child is a very sad novel. Agatha is so lonely and the solution to that loneliness is one that will cause her further pain. It’s not made clear in the novel whether Agatha is experiencing mental ill health or a truly wondrous manifestation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter because what is being portrayed, in a compelling and involving way, is the quiet desperation that could exist within an ordinary woman’s life in this period.

Agatha has no troubles or ostensible difficulties to contend with, but what she has is an entirely unfulfilled life and no idea of how to live differently. Her solution is extreme, and in many ways is one borne out of fear. She has been equipped with almost no life skills, and a fear of the wider world. It is no wonder that her solution is one that possibly lives only in her own head, and thrives in her domestic realm.

“Agatha thought she liked picnics, and in the long winter evening she often played at going to them with Clarissa. She felt rather differently about them in the summer, preferring them at a distance, like most things.”

I found The Love Child to be a sensitive and inventive novel. It was also highly readable and made me keen to seek out more of Edith Olivier’s work.

21 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2022 No.24

  1. Hurrah, so pleased you’ve read this for one of your novellas! Obviously you know I love it, and I really enjoyed your take on it. Sadly Olivier’s other novels are nowhere near as good, though I did like As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s and The Seraphim Room.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a lovely little book. I read a kindle version some years ago, so was delighted to get sent this new edition for when I want to reread it. There is some sad loneliness in this one, but it’s so beautifully balanced.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just skimming your review for now, Madame Bibi as it’s a book I’d like to read but would rather not know too much about in advance, if that makes sense! Lovely to see from your closing comments that you liked it so much – so I’m guessing that it’s likely to suit me too?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steering clear of the BLWW series, since their Crime Classics, Science Fiction and Tales of the Weird are already consuming so much of my time! But they do sound very tempting, though this one sounds very sad.

    Liked by 1 person

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