Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love was an interesting, if depressing, novel about young English women studying at university in the 1960s. Carmel, the narrator, has been brought up in a grim, working-class Northern town to believe that she does not deserve pleasure or happiness, and that her life must consist entirely of duty, hard work and ambition. She shares her London residential hall with two former schoolmates – Katrina, whose Eastern European migrant parents escaped the wartime “cattle cars”, and wealthy, confident Julianne, both of whom turn out to have secret lives. Carmel begins to starve herself, due partly to the terrible institutional meals and her inability to pay for extra food, partly to her misery after her boyfriend dumps her, but mostly as a logical consequence of her self-denying nature. The conclusion was a little too melodramatic and abrupt for me, but otherwise, I found this to be a thoughtful exploration of sexism and class divisions in 1960s England. It reminded me quite a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, set during the same period in Canada and also featuring a young woman reacting to society’s restrictions on women’s appetites by starving herself nearly to death.
I also found myself engrossed in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, a meticulous study of an abusive marriage, set in post-war Sydney. Young Laura and Clare have been abandoned by their self-centred mother after the death of their father, so Laura marries her boss, Felix Shaw, because he promises to fund Clare’s education. He goes back on this, and on every other promise he makes to Laura, and spends the next ten years torturing her, physically and psychologically, until she abandons all hope. At first it seems that Clare will also succumb to this monster, but she has hidden reserves of strength, which are revealed when a young refugee needing help enters her life. It was painful for me to watch Laura’s decline, with her only real attempt at escape thwarted by her environment – in the 1940s, Australian police regarded domestic violence as a private matter, there were no women’s refuges, and there were few options for a woman with no education, no job references and no money. Then again, a woman today trapped by a man as manipulative and vicious as Felix would also have a very difficult time escaping him. Some of the choices the author made (the constantly shifting points of view; the long sentences interspersed with sentence fragments) didn’t always work for me, but her descriptions of Sydney were vivid and the psychological studies of Felix, Laura and Clare were fascinating, if horrifying.
After all that grimness, it was a relief to spend time with Mrs Hawkins, the magnificent young widow at the centre of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Mrs Hawkins, who works in the publishing industry in 1950s London, busies herself dispensing good advice to neighbours and colleagues, but her comfortable life is disrupted when she insults a pompous hack called Hector Bartlett. Their feud leads to a range of disastrous consequences for those around them, but Mrs Hawkins has no regrets and emerges triumphant. This novel is cleverly plotted and very, very funny. I think my favourite scene was the posh dinner party, in which Mrs Hawkins dispenses writing tips to her fellow guests, and then, due to a misunderstanding of etiquette, remains with the gentlemen and their port and cigars when the other ladies prepare to depart the room:
“I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room … I, for one, refused to behave rudely just to show solidarity with these oversensitive women, possibly prudes.”
As she is Mrs Hawkins, she not only gets away with this, but becomes even more respected. I also enjoyed her refusal to give in to Emma Loy, a successful novelist entangled with Hector Bartlett. Emma attempts to explain his appeal:
“Do you realise how dedicated he is to my work? He knows all my works by heart. He can quote chapter and verse, any of my novels. It’s amazing.”
“Does he quote it right?”
“No. He generally gets it wrong, I’ll admit. But his dedication to me is there…”