First published under the title of ‘The Dark Side of Venus’, if you are looking for the kind of salacious lesbian romance that can be lazily read in the course of a single afternoon, you can safely give this one a miss. But even if you could read it quickly you would find that the protagonists in this story are not the kind of substance-less characters upon which we frequently find the overwrought fabric of sexually graphic material conveniently draped.
This book is a totally overlooked treasure – and even when I clearly understand why this is so, I still can’t quite believe it.
The writing is bold and precise while being at the same time personal and evocative. Even the most minor characters, presented in vivid vignettes are as unforgettably drawn as the nurse and the friar in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The secondary – and of course the main characters emerge as very real people – with the result that to me they are simultaneously intimate and iconic.
Dialogue, is where one finds many writers falling short, but Verel has perfect pitch in this department. She is deft and clear, and adept, and if readers do not pay close attention to everything that is said by the characters – both reading and ‘ listening’ between the lines, much of the book’s nuance and subtlety will be missed. One has to almost read this book in the way one reads poetry.
The plot, set in London and its suburbs, is fairly simple – girl meets girl – they take a while to delicately acknowledge the force that draws them together, they fall in love and become a couple, difficulties intervene to drive them apart, and when all has been lost and they hang on a single frayed thread, incredibly the prospect of a restored love and its suggested success is recovered.
Those are the bare bones, but the story is so beautifully and unforgettably wrought, that I have re read it innumerable times over a period of more than twenty four years.
Shirley Verel writes about love between women in an indeterminate time between the late ‘fifties’ and the early ‘sixties’.
Judith Allart is divorced from her husband Martin, in large part because of the inescapable – if one is honest – incompatibility which results when a lesbian marries a heterosexual man, even one as civilised as Martin. Despite her honesty, she does not tell him that she is a lesbian until much later, – and to my way of thinking, this, rather than being a deception, is the proof of her very private nature. Judith and Martin are still friends, though Martin continues to cherish the hope of a reconciliation.
Judith is intelligent and aloof – and though we are spared the clumsy and excessive physical descriptions commonly resorted to by writers who want their readers to find their protagonists attractive, one slowly gets the suggested sense that she is also beautiful – tall, slender and fair-haired with a skin that easily takes a tan. She is twenty eight when she meets Diana Quendon the niece of Andrew, one of her wealthy colleagues. Diana, a beautiful dark haired nineteen, has just published a lighthearted book about her life as a schoolgirl in a French convent, and the book is garnering unexpected success and publicity. Andrew throws a party for Diana, and Judith is invited – and the two meet.
Though things seem very hit-or miss at first, the two of them are brought together by a force that somehow impels them towards each other, and through all the course of their getting to know each other, quickly the unstated force of their love begins to emerge and inevitably direct their actions and circumstances.
Judith’s motives are lofty and altruistic – and paradoxical. She knows from her own experience that a lesbian can never make a success of a heterosexual marriage, yet she has convinced herself all the same, that it may be possible, for a young women of lesbian inclination (like Diana) to avoid a full acknowledgment of her true nature, and somehow ‘fit in’ to the less complicated and less potentially tragic arrangement of a heterosexual lifestyle.
Even when it is clear to Judith that Diana is painfully in love with her, she determinedly holds back – not wishing Diana to forgo the chance and ‘privilege’ of a conventional life. This persists even Diana makes it clearly though un-explicitly known to Judith that she feels no passion at all for her beau Gerald Paley,the lively, ‘normal’ and thoroughly heterosexual boyfriend who wants to marry her The tension created by Judith’s agonised resistance which in turn forbids Diana to frankly express her own feelings, creates a tightrope for them both. Eventually, when it can no longer be denied, they tacitly acknowledge the elephant in the room, and go off together to France for a summer vacation.
The women drive through the French countryside and room chastely together in little rented lodgings – because though Judith yearns express her feelings, she resists. She has imposed upon herself a condition of reserve, because of a conviction that she wants Diana to make the first move: Love remains palpable and unspoken, until an accident on the way back to England literally makes further suppression impossible.
Finally there is the much anticipated clarification, and two of them decide to turn back and have the kind of holiday they should have had in the first place.
No sooner it seems ( barely a week or so ) than the lovers and declare themselves, than their secret is exposed to – and later by – Julian, a conservative friend and suitor of Judith’s who arrives to vacation in France..
When Judith and Diana return home after their vacation, they move in together for a brief period of blissful domesticity in Judith’s London flat. However, Julian reveals the truth about them, and this leads inevitably to a wrenching separation.
I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, except to say that there is so much said in here – and not at all heavy – handedly but almost as a suggestion – about the nature of true love: Both lovers are terribly altruistic, and willing to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for the other, and this is what I find most beautiful and at the same time, aggravating about this story. Today we might find it astonishing that false morality and hypocritical and priggish conventions could coerce women in love with each other to forgo their chance at love and happiness, but those were the repressively homophobic mores which prevailed at the time. It is clear that neither Andrew or Julian is capable of experiencing or understanding love – and yet they are only too happy to judge.
I found the separation of Judith and Diana the most wrenchingly painful part of the book to read. Every time I read it I have to clench my teeth to get through it.
Told almost as a story within a story and Indelible and telling are the incidents in Judith’s girlhood and life prior to her meeting with Diana – which led her to an acknowledgment of her lesbian nature . It is difficult for us today to imagine this world of more than fifty years ago – when lesbian love had to be kept a secret from society. It seems unbelievable now that being gay then was so freighted with fear and peril.
The other slight and perhaps incongruous note to me was that both Judith and Diana seemed to possess the kind of poise and innate dignity that one expects to find in much more mature people – but then again – this could be because they are meant by Verel to be presented to us as remarkable…
The book suffers slightly from careless editing – I found one small gap – nothing I could not extrapolate – and a dropped word. Though it is impossible to blame Virago press their oversights: If not for them, this little gem would be completely unknown.
Verel steadfastly avoids the trite certainties that accompany most love-stories, and her prose is both pared down and vivid. It felt to me like a perfume which though fresh and clean and strong is full of intense complexity.
Her other lesbian love story ‘The Bee’s Kiss’ set in England of the ‘fifties, is also about the love affair between and ‘older’ ( in her twenties ) and ‘younger’ ( in her teens) woman. It is no less wonderfully written.
I found one other lesbian short story by Verel, ‘Going With the Weather’ in an anthology of mostly terrible lesbian short stories, and one other book ‘ ‘Room for Trouble’. The fourth book ‘Goodnight my Vow is difficult, though not impossible to find, and I have found only one mention of the fifth, – ‘Little Girl Left’.
I tried very hard and very unsuccessfully to find out more about this wonderful but elusive writer who is not well known, and certainly not celebrated here in the U.S. Perhaps it is because she is so serious and un-sensational, and has to be read with attention, If not read carefully the finesse of her subtle touch will go unnoticed.
Regrettably this is a detriment in an age of careless readers, so I think this book will never get the attention and appreciation it so richly deserves.
I think this story would also make an excellent movie – and I wish someone would.