It’s not often I read something that I feel is genuinely very different to anything I’ve read before, and there isn’t anything about Agatha Bodenham, the unmarried daughter left to her own devices following the death of her mother, that initially strikes you as particularly unique. But Oliver’s 1927 novel takes the spinster figure – certainly not an uncommon figure in literature or in post-war society – and gives her a child of her own – of sorts – to love. The difficulty Agatha faces is not one of public censure but the fact that the child, Clarissa, is her long lost childhood imaginary friend made real. In her intense loneliness, Agatha calls Clarissa into being, and soon it isn’t only Agatha who can see her.
‘Old Hunt saw her the next day. He asked Agatha to tell the young lady not to run over the radish bed where he had just put in the seed. Agatha answered him faintly. Panic slowly mounted within her. She was almost besides herself. Clarissa was growing unmanageable.’
In Susan Hill’s hands, or perhaps if Sarah Waters was writing this story, things could have taken a more sinister turn here, but what follows is a moving tale of a symbiotic relationship very much needed by the lonely Agatha. Using a very English form of magical realism, Olivier invites us to consider what would happen if our childhood imaginary figures and stories could actually be realised – here, Agatha has another chance to live a more vivid life, and she attempts to seize it. It isn’t without its difficulties, however, both in the practical terms of explaining away this new child in the household and in the dependency both Agatha and Clarissa feel towards each other.
‘She never left Clarissa alone. The child seemed in every way perfectly normal, and Agatha herself often forgot that she wasn’t, and yet she could not altogether banish from her mind the uneasy feeling that Clarissa’s existence depended on her own immediate presence – that if you happened to find the child alone, you wouldn’t find her at all.’
The imagination is obviously an potent force, and like so many other good novels, this idea is explored fully here. What happens when your imaginary childhood companion grows up? The ending is the bit I want to discuss with other readers – there are two main possible readings – but I do not want to spoil it for those yet to read this fascinating story. But gosh – it’s an emotional ending, however you look at it. This is yet another marvellous and fascinating addition to the British Library Women Writers collection – read it and then we can talk about it!