“The 1920s were a great time for reading” (Bill Bryson)

A little while ago I wrote about Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, her novel set in the 1920s, which I took refuge in as I was trying to grow my hair into a bob (well, it made sense at the time). Rest easy reader, I know you must have been worrying about it, but a friend proclaimed this weekend that my hair looks most definitely bob-like so I’m walking around like a fabulous flapper:

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Maybe not. But regardless, to celebrate I’m looking at two novels from the 1920s, as recommended by Sarah Waters at the end of The Paying Guests. Choosing from the list of ten was a serious business, involving shortlists, consulting with various bookish types, taking votes…. OK, I just picked the two I had on my TBR mountain 🙂

Firstly, The Judge by Rebecca West (1922) which Sarah Waters describes thusly: “Suffragism, illegitimacy, motherhood, melodrama: like lots of West’s fiction, this is sprawling, brilliant, funny – and a little bit crazy.” The story begins in Edinburgh, where Ellen, nineteen years old, beautiful and a suffragette, meets Richard Yaverland:

“For sufficient reasons he was very sensitive to the tragedies of women, and he knew it was a tragedy that such a face should surmount such a body. For her body would imprison her in soft places: she would be allowed no adventures other than love, no achievements other than births.”

Later in the story it will emerge what those sufficient reasons are, but against her better judgement Ellen falls in love with worldly, handsome Richard.

“She was not sure that she approved of love. The position of women being what it was. Men were tyrants, and they seemed to be able to make their wives ignoble. Married women were often anti-Suffragists; they were often fat; they never seemed to go out on long walks in the hills or write poetry.”

Alongside this humour and Ellen’s naivety “I will have nothing to do with any man until I am great. Then I suppose I will have to use them as pawns in my political and financial intrigues” West does have something serious to say about relationships between the sexes at that moment in time. The Judge presents detailed character studies of Ellen, Richard and his mother Marion, and how society has influenced the nature and capacity of their love. This is not a rose-tinted view of young marriage by any means.

“Perhaps something like fear would have come upon her if she had known how immense he felt with victory; how he contemplated her willingness to love him in a passion of timeless wonder, watching her journey from heaven, stepping from star to star, all the way down the dark whirling earth of his heart; and how even while he felt a solemn agony at his unworthiness he was busily contriving their immediate marriage. For there was a steely quality about his love that would have been more appropriate to some vindictive purpose.”

 The second half of the novel sees Ellen leave Edinburgh to live with Richard and his mother in the Home Counties. More emerges about the circumstances of Richard’s illegitimacy and subsequently complex family dynamics. It is at this point that the melodrama mentioned by Sarah Waters really starts to ramp up. I think it’s here that the novel may start to lose readers, but although it begins to spiral somewhat, I still thought the novel had a lot to say about women’s position and the ramifications of moral absolutes. Marion and Richard have a relationship Freud would have found great mileage in, teetering on the edge of impropriety. Ellen is understandably somewhat befuddled by this brittle woman and her weird family, but she decides they suit her:

 “The rapidity with which she had changed from the brooding thing she generally was, with her heavy eyes and her twitching hands perpetually testifying that the chords of her life had not been resolved and she was on edge to hear their final music, and the perfection with which she had assumed this bland and glossy personality at a moment’s notice, struck Ellen with wonder and admiration. She liked the way this family turned and doubled under the attack of fate. She felt glad that she was going to become one of them, just as a boy might feel proud on joining a pirate crew.”

The Judge is somewhat overblown, but I enjoyed it for that reason – sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of mad melodramatics alongside the serious issues.

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Secondly, Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921) which Sarah Waters describes as “a brilliant depiction of a sinister, suffocating marriage, this novel also features one of the most likeable spinster aunts in British fiction.” Sinister is right: this is a very different tale to the delightful The Enchanted April. Definitely not escapist, Vera is rather one of those novels where you want to reach into the book, yank out one of the characters and shake them until they listen to you, the older, wiser reader. Maybe I get over-involved in my reading…

Lucy Entwhistle, young and naïve, finds herself almost alone in the world after her beloved father dies. Blundering into her grief moments after the death is the older, good-looking Wemyss, also grieving a loss, as his wife has recently died in possibly murky circumstances:

“‘How good you are!’ she said to Wemyss, her red eyes filling. ‘What would I have done without you?’

‘But what would I have done without you?’ he answered; and they stared at each other, astonished at the nature of the bond between them, at its closeness, at the way it seemed almost miraculously to have been arranged that they should meet on the crest of despair and save each other.”

Vera is extremely clever, as at first we don’t like Wemyss, but like Lucy’s beloved spinster Aunt Dorothy, it’s not totally clear why: “whatever she felt about his legs she welcomed him with the utmost cordiality”. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more unpleasant he reveals himself to be – a wholly self-centred, arrogant, ignorant bully. Aunt Dorothy is wise enough to realise that if she registers her objections, it will only push Wemyss and Lucy closer together, and so she keeps quiet, though distressed, as she watches the tragedy unfold.

“His way of courting wouldn’t be – she searched about in her uneasy mind for a word, and found vegetarian. Yes; that word sufficiently indicated what she meant: it wouldn’t be vegetarian.”

Von Arnim’s lovely humour stops the tale being bleak, but it is a tense tale, increasingly so after Wemyss and Lucy marry less than a year from the death of the titular wife. The scales begin to fall from Lucy’s eyes:

“One learns a lot on a honeymoon, Lucy reflected, and one of the things she had learned was that Wemyss’s mind was always made up.”

But Lucy doesn’t realise the extent of what is going on in her marriage. We are living at a time of fourth-wave feminism, and in a post-Freudian world, so I would say Lucy is in a psychologically abusive marriage with a narcissistic, megalomaniac sadist who seeks to destroy her.  But she cannot see it.

“the mood of tender, half-asleep acquiescence in which, as she lay in his arms, he most loved her; then indeed she was his baby…You couldn’t passionately protect Vera. She was always in another room.”

Wise Vera.  There is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is the wonderful Aunt Dorothy. Never underestimate the clear-sighted spinster Wemyss, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple - 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple – 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Image from here

Vera is a brilliantly written psychological study of the dangers for women in a society that seeks to position them as economically and socially dependent on men, particularly when this dependency is wrapped up in romantic notions. It made me furious and it made me sad. It also made me glad that although we have some way to go, I live where my rights as a woman are enshrined in law.

To end, what Lucy needs is a Lesley Gore classic cranked up to 11, sung by the perennially awesome feminist icon Joan Jett: