Posted on | March 6, 2011 | 9 Comments
I’ve been meaning to read a Laski for a long time, and I finally picked this book out of my shelf, just to help me return to the world of reading – one of my many loves that I’ve been ignoring recently. And on finishing it, I was gently reminded as to why I love reading so much.
I’ve spent the past couple of months literally obsessing over things, and trying to make a life-changing decision (career-wise). However, while reading (and on finishing) this book, I almost immediately started focusing on the points it raises and the questionable character of this book’s protagonist. Annoyingly, I can’t seem to make my mind up about where I stand.
On the eve of Graham’s departure to Cairo for an office job in the midst of the War, his wife (Deborah) and he are lying in bed talking. Graham is likely to be away for a few years, and right up front, he tells Deborah that while he doesn’t think abstinence is likely, he will promise not to fall in love with anyone else, thereby remaining faithful to his wife. Deborah, the model wife, on the other hand, promises to be faithful on all fronts, and devote her time to looking after their baby, Timmy. Yet, within days, Deborah is bored to death by the banalities of life as a mother and home-maker, and it only takes minimal persuasion from her mother for Deborah to abandon life in the small Hampshire village, and head to London for an office job.
Her first day in London results in a drunken one night stand, which she is disgusted by, and returns home and devotes herself to Timmy. In general, she has a better temperament, much to the relief of her mother as well as her housekeeper, Mrs. Chalmers. However, she returns to London soon after, and shares an apartment with her college friend, Madeleine, leaving Timmy in the capable hands of Mrs. Chalmers. Initially, she spends the evenings alone in the apartment, despite Mady’s best efforts to coax her into the life of glamour: going to parties and having fun, adamant that she should not even be tempted to be unfaithful to her husband. At this point, I sympathised with her, despite her abandoning her son, and looking for a more exciting life in London during the war.
Her adamance crumbles though when Joe, a married American, knocks on the door of her apartment, and convinces her to go out for dinner. While Graham promised Deborah that he would not fall in love, Joe’s promise to his pregnant wife was the inverse, i.e. he would not cheapen his relationship with his wife by sleeping with cheap women. They both appear to be on the same page when it comes to their marriage and their thoughts on infidelity. They do sleep together though, which they justify by saying they are still faithful to their respective spouses, as they are not in love. Many expensive presents and dinners and drinks later, the line between love and companionship blur, and Deborah is very much in love with Joe. Yet, when he has to leave the city, Deborah accustomed to a life of glamour and ostentation, finds another lover and then another – which is all too disturbing. It gets sickeningly worse when she asks men to visit her at the her cottage in Hampshire over the weekends, and it’s evident that she’s lost all her moral standards and naivety when she requests one of the men to teach her how to be a good mistress – only because it’s a trait that Mady possesses, and Deborah envies that. The way she convinces herself that she’s not in the wrong and justifies each and every action of hers is mind-boggling, for initially she does come across as someone with high principles and moralities. One can account for a weak character easily being dispossessed of all their virtues, but someone who is as uptight and “holier-than-thou” as Deborah morphing into a greedy tart almost seems to defy logic.
Overdrawing from her bank account, moving from man to man, to the extent that one man introduces her to another, and manipulating men at will to buy her fancy things and take her to restaurants and clubs which Graham would never be able afford seems to business-as-usual for her, and this hedonistic superficial lifestyle is all she cares about. Even her son takes second place. Yet, she manages to justify it.
“You’re at least the third person,” she said, “who has asked me if I mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”
One does wonder though: is it the aftermath of war that prompts people to abandon their principles? Or, is war just an excuse for people to let loose their inner inhibitions an do what they want? If Graham hadn’t been called up, would things have turned out differently, or was Deborah only looking for the easiest way out of a life of commitment and stability only to plunge into glamour and deceit? And, how exactly is it, that people who initially come across as so prudish are so quick to turn themselves into the “anti-prude”, driven by envy and hedonism, and then, even justify it? Or, does the need to justify the actions arise from the prudishness, or the need to believe that they haven’t done any wrong?
I was very much in love with Graham when I married him, conceded Deborah, who was determined not to be one of those low girls who denied a love as soon as it was over, but there’s no reason why the person who suited you at twenty should still be the right person for you at twenty-five, when you’ve both developed and changed and in different directions too.
But honestly – the way Deborah’s character spirals downwards is scary, and just… worrying. The transformation from naive and innocent to vice is so rapid, that I couldn’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed and contemplative. Is it only a matter of circumstance? Can circumstance really justify this sheer selfish extravagant hedonism? And with no regrets? Actually, I lie – Deborah did end up regretting the fact that the war had ended, and she would be forced to go back to the mundane life of hers, and leave behind the thrills of London.
According to the introduction, this book is not entirely fictional, but an account of someone Laski knew who did transgress similar to Deborah. Initially, it was written under the pseudonym Sarah Russell, as, according to Laski’s daughter, Laski was “fascinated and upset at seeing what the war had done to this person” but didn’t want the person to figure out that she was the anti-heroine of the book. The person Deborah’s character was inspired by managed to get a divorce from “Graham” and she re-married a rich man – probably one who was able to afford her extravagant way of living, and who liked showing off his trophy wife (the last bit’s pure conjecture on my part).
I loved this book, and I really do want to read some more books by Laski. There are four published by Persephone, so I guess I have three more to go. Which would you recommend next?