Waking on her 43rd birthday, Neville takes a moment to herself. And as most women know, it is these snatched moments of quiet which restore, however briefly, a sense of one’s own identity.
‘Swimming, bread and marmalade, sitting high in a beech tree in the golden eye of the morning sun – that was life. One flew then, like a gay ship with the wind in its sails, over the cold, black, bottomless waters of misgiving.’
First published in 1921, this novel, with its marvellous urgency in describing experience, has a very ‘1920s voice’, ‘the thing was to defy life … wrest out of the wreckage something for oneself by which to live at the last’, but the examination of women’s lives at various stages makes it utterly timeless too. Neville is facing the fact that her role as a mother is coming to an end now that her children are grown up, and she is dissatisfied with the idea of simply playing wife to her political husband. She decides to re-engage with her medical training, abandoned twenty years earlier, so that she can make her own mark and scratch ‘the itch for recognition’.
Her mother, at another ‘dangerous age’ at 63, is also struggling. ‘I am an old, discarded woman … because my husband is gone and my children are gone, and they do not love me as I love them.’ Mrs Hilary, referred to by her marital title for most of the novel and regarded by most of her family as a bit foolish, is the Awful Warning for Neville, and for Neville’s younger sister, Nan, a writer who seeks and rejects emotional ties. The fear of becoming one’s mother drives both Nan and Neville.
‘I’m like mother. That was Nan’s nightmare thought. Not intellectually, for Nan’s brain was sharp and subtle and strong and fine, and Mrs Hilary’s an amorphous, undeveloped muddle. But where, if not from Mrs Hilary, did Nan get her black fits of melancholy, her erratic and irresponsible gaieties, her passionate angers, her sharp jealousies and egotisms?’
It is Mrs Hilary who begins to explore Freudianism, largely as a means to have someone who will listen to her talk about herself. Macaulay seems to have fun setting up her character’s responses to analysis, very much in vogue at the time, but it is Mrs Hilary’s granddaughter, Gerda, who embraces the theories wholeheartedly. Gerda is in her early twenties, a bright if slightly directionless young woman, and a keen advocate of dispensing with the previous generation’s social expectations. She sees little point in discussing anything of meaning with her grandmother because, ‘looking across a gulf of forty years … words don’t carry as far as that.’ Gerda represents the unassailable advantage that youth brings. She’s not as interesting a character as the older women, but things go her way.
This is a fascinating and highly readable exploration of women’s lives – whilst it is set a hundred years ago, the women at their various stages in life, and their concerns, feel ever so familiar – and Neville, Nan, and Mrs Hilary are brilliantly written. This is another excellent new publication from the British Library Women Writers range and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My thanks to Maria Vassilopoulos @BL_Publishing for my review copy.