Posts Tagged ‘Novels’

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.

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Now and then one comes across a character in a book who is hauntingly unforgettable. Kath, the central character here is someone such. The regret that comes with the contemplation of lost lives, and loss in general, is not easily cast aside.

It takes great skill and an inward looking perspective for a writer to construct a novel around a character who is already dead when the story begins. What follows must needs be a meditation in negative space on the subject of the human condition in general, and more specifically the degree to which we human being are aware or unaware of each other’s ‘human condition’, even when we are spouses, relatives and close associates of each other.

Kath’s husband Glyn discovers a photograph of her buried in his papers. The irony cannot be missed. Kath begins to come alive to him when he discovers her likeness hidden among his forgotten papers months after she is already dead and buried.

Kath had committed suicide for reasons that are unclear to almost everyone in her life, and to none more so than Glyn, since he had never troubled to grasp who and what she really was when she was alive. We as readers come along for the ride in his search to discover who and what she was, and to unravel the mystery of her life and death. in the mean time of course we discover things about the other characters in the story, mainly Kath’s sister Elaine, her husband Nick, but others as well.

The writer, Penelope Lively, casts an unflinching eye on the several relationships in this novel. She deftly strips them of their conventional veneers to reveal what lies beneath. No one is spared. The question which is asked and explored, but not fully answered, – because perhaps it does not lend itself to an answer, is, ‘what is it that keeps us alive and living’ : What keeps us going, and how can we manage to go on if we cannot find it ourselves, and there is no one to give us what we need in order to stay connected to life.

Lively makes us see how spouses and children ( Elaine, Nick and Peggy their daughter) must come to terms with huge rifts and tears in parental and spousal relationships if they are not to do without relationships entirely.

She (Lively) has also some light to shed on our probable fate if, as in Glyn’s case, the enormity of the lesson being delivered by life is such that we simply lack the ability to take it in.

Kath has the feverish beauty and fragility of the woman pursued by demons and doomed to kill herself. In some way she reminds us of real life women like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as fictitious characters such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, and makes us ponder about the mysteries of their deaths as well.

Looking at her through the eyes of the people who knew her, we are compelled to try and sort out the artifacts large and small, hidden and revealed, of Kath’s existential dilemma. The spokes of the story only began to draw together for me with the presence of Mary Packard, the stable hub in the centre of all the revolving characters.

While this novel unfolds as a reflection of the aftermath of an ‘inexplicable’ death,  it is also a serious investigation int0 the kind of re-examination of purpose and priority which then devolve on  the living, It is also a highly symmetrical study of human relationships; specifically couple relationships, and even further than that, of as many different types of couple relationships as could have been effectively got into a novel. The couples made  still more sense to me when I classified them as  the dyads in the ‘cross multiplication’ of fractions. For example, Nick/Kath fun-loving,enthusiastic, imaginative, negligently left by their  respective spouses to shift as well as they could, and Elaine/Glyn, who with their highly successful careers and monumental self-absorption tended to ignore or treat as trivial their rather more skittish spouses. it was not surprising that Kath and Nick paired off – drawn i think by the many things they had in common both as individuals and lacked in common as spouses.
Then of course there were the ‘types’ of marriages – Oliver, the not quite marriage – Polly – the marriage to be, Margot and Glyn – the ‘never was going to be’ marriage, Kath and Glyn – the totally lost marriage, Elaine and Nick – the lost and possibly found marriage and of course the ‘should have been because they totally would have deserved each other marriage, Elaine and Glyn. each individual seemed to have chosen a spouse who possessed the traits they most coveted. that this strategy is bound to fail seems to be one of the points Lively is making. I think Kath succumbed to despair when she ‘struck out’ in her attempt to find fulfillment first with Glyn,  then with Nick, and  finally with her wish to have a child.

The irony of course is that eventually none of these things could have saved her or made her happy. What makes Kath central to me was that she alone looked unflinchingly into the abyss of dissatisfaction and disappointment that life so frequently turns out to be.

Lively’s ‘immortal  hand and eye’ have neatly formed ‘these fearful symmetries’ and relational acrostics for our edification and benefit, but miraculously she has accomplished this feat with a total absence of preachments, and without for an instant losing sight of the delicacy and fragility of our humanity.

If there was an elephant in the ‘room’ of this novel, it was Love: but Lively is much too astute to tell us so. Instead she shows us in relentless detail, the huge empty landscapes our lives become in its absence.

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That Smouldering Look

Like so many people who have read this book and have never been able to forget it, I was instantly captivated by Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (published in July of 1951) from the first time I read it as a teenager. Since then I have read and re-read this marvelous book several more times, and I think I have finally managed to put my finger on the hook which was from the very start securely lodged in my cheek.
From the opening chapters an image of Rachel emerged in my imagination as a Franco Zeffirrelli heroine –  a delicate combined portrait of Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre in looks – but painted in   fine Italian chiaroscuro.
In my imagination a streak of light catches Rachel’s very soignèe, very tightly combed and knotted  dark hair, and shows off to its best advantage her beautifully shaped head. I see the simple and exceedingly elegant cut of her black dress, and her dark, suggestive beauty offset by her pale and sensitive hands, and  the creamy flesh of her slender neck emerging above the modest neckline. I see the dark and fading browns and greens of a renaissance landscape with plane trees and cypresses in the background…  I see some of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ in her as well… I hear a Donizetti aria or two –  “Regnava Nel Silenzio” and “Una Furtiva Lagrima” –  because of course such passion as she may inspire inevitably compels the headlong rushing in of fools, as well as its predictable aftermath.
But above and beyond all of  that, the most insistent, most confusing, and most disorienting  sound I hear is Phillip’s voice:
It is a voice that comes out of his mouth without ever being his. I now know that this is because it is in fact a woman’s voice. – or more accurately, the voice of a castrato taken over by a woman, – perhaps like that of  Pauline Viardot’s Orpheus singing “J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice” in a mist of grief and passion. Despite being cast as that epitome of maleness, the English country gentleman, Philips’ voice has the timbre of extreme sexual ambiguity.
As a writer, Daphne du Maurier is a superb ventriloquist, and her throwing of Phillip’s voice quite tricked my cognitive ear, though my intuitive ear was not so easily persuaded. It took me all these many disquieting years to discover that no man could ever speak of a woman in the way Phillip speaks of Rachel, but only a woman who finds others of her own sex a source of confounding fascination, which is to say, a lesbian.
When I construe Phillip as a young dyke, ‘his’ voice, a breaking mezzo/contralto,  fits exactly.
The richness of this book is that it is teeming with the unseen ghosts of literary and cultural symbols   – the ghosts of the Brontës (during whose lifetimes the novel is set), the noble and tormented ghost of Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen, the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia with the whiff of poison clinging to her reputed ring, and perhaps even the tantalising ghost of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile – the smile which intimates there is something behind it that we could never see.  The atmosphere is filled with the anxious echoes of a past that is persistently insinuating itself into the present.
The chord Du Maurier strikes is rich in resonance and harmonics. It goes on echoing and reverberating, because throughout its long vibration, which in this novel is the tension of a prolonged falling in love, the sound of voice and the image of the speaker appear not to be the same.
Phillip,the first person protagonist, seems completely unable to hear his own voice. Nor does he seem able to grasp the implications of his emotions or his actions. He consistently and unswervingly evinces the bafflement of a young girl who falls in love with another young girl, or a  woman, without ever having the slightest inkling that despite everything they are led to believe about what they should expect to encounter within the strictly heterosexual constraints of conventional romances of the common and garden sort,  girls do in fact fall hopelessly and irrevocably in love with women.


Rachel captivates Phillip from the start, and the secret of her power over him rests in no small part on his utter lack of preparedness for such an encounter. Long before he meets her he has created an unattractive image of her which he is determined to dislike. He is certain that he will be impervious to her. He has no idea that she is the kind of woman who captivates without effort, and with an inescapable finality. Nor does he know he is exactly the kind of person who always falls fatally in love.

Philip has modeled himself so rigidly upon the template of cousin Ambrose, about twenty years his senior, that he is completely purblind to his own love-struck condition. Like a child in grow-up clothes – or rather like a girl who is determined to do a good job of playing a boy’s part in the school play, he has thrown himself into the role, and plays it whole-heartedy and well:  So well indeed that he himself is lost in it.
In fact, the the part of the English country gentleman is very nearly overplayed by him.
The relatively simple and uncomplicated virtues required of him in this part make him an easy read for Rachel, who has behind her the experience of surviving an unstable and precarious childhood and girlhood in the questionable care of her dissolute parents who married her off to a reckless Italian noble by the name of Sangalletti. Now there’s a a name that seems to carry in its sound a bloody (and decidedly un-saintly) harmonic, which turns out to be  quite ironically apposite, since he died in a duel. This wealth of  experience has endowed her with the strategies she needed to survive in a much more dangerous world than a rambling old country house in peaceful Cornwall could ever be.
When Rachel creates an exotic garden paradise in which she and Eve and the Serpent are one, we readers are at once uneasily aware that Phillip, a young girl in boy’s clothing, could never be her match. Ambrose, Phillip’s older cousin who was Rachel’s husband, like the ghost in Hamlet’s, did not survive his marriage, and has died under mysterious circumstances.

Pods of the Laburnum.

Even though deceased Ambrose and androgynous Phillip are central characters; besides a butler, a guardian, a dog, and a dead man, there is not one convincing living and breathing male in this story. Even Rainaldi, Rachel’s  sinister Italian friend and lawyer, with his slight build and waspish manner seems more like a peevish spinster than a real man.

Rachel is the dark lady of Phillip’s sonnets, but she is also the Muse – the Goddess – and as such we know that with her mysterious beauty, her ‘otherness’, elusiveness  and  unattainability  she can never be cast as a wife – at least, not for long. Doom hangs over us all from the start: One imagines that one can hear in Rachel’s and Philip’s dangerous connection the ominous sound of of two tectonic plates dragging against each other on the way to their earth-shattering climax:
I know that reading this book as a young girl, I sensed all of this without ever being able to know or grasp any of it. Like Phillip, without noticing what was happening to me, I too had fallen in love with Rachel right away. Even the very seeds she saved – or hid in her darkly ambiguously sinister manner – had a name suggestive of delicate blossoms and  warm lips – Laburnum….

Rachel my torment….

I have also wondered if there was not also a bit of a modulated Hamlet – Hamlet in a minor key – secreted in the manner in which Du Maurier configures Philip in the plot: Ambrose, the much older husband,  is already deceased when the story begins, and the reason for his death is suspected poisoning. True the finger points more directly at Rachel than at Rainaldi, who is a somewhat distant stand in for the Claudius figure, but both Rachel and Rainaldi stand side by side in the sinister reputations of  duplicitous Italians who tend to disposed of their rivals with undetectable poisons. Philip, for his part loathes and despises  the machiavellian Rainaldi, his vaunted rival, in much the same manner that Hamlet despises his step-father Claudius.

As with Hamlet, there is even the slight shadow of incest in Philips’ hopes of supplanting his father-figure. Ambrose is present in his ghostly form throughout the story.  Philip is waiting to inherit his kingdom. There is even an English Desdemona in Louise – a young and innocent woman who loves Phillip – and she is the daughter of his guardian, the prudent Nick Kendall, who is of course the Polonius figure. Then of course there is the matter of Rachel’s final accident….

Daphne Du Maurier admitted that her inspiration for Rachel was Ellen Doubleday the wife of her American publisher. We shall never know whether or not this particular passion was fulfilled, as was her affair with the famous actress Gertrude Lawrence.
I am now unable to escape the realisation that the ghost in this book was Du Maurier herself, with her impeccable persona of a very proper and very married English lady who nonetheless possessed the incongruous, undeniable, spot-on, pitch-perfect modulation of a lesbian sensibility.






Last night (September fifth 2011) I came across this quote of Daphne Du Maurier in a 1977 interview, and it finally confirmed for me something I always knew intuitively….

It was the answer to a question asked by (unnamed) the interviewer

“In My Cousin Rachel, was Rachel good or evil?”

“Lots of people have asked that and, to tell the truth, I don’t know. You see, I was Philip when I wrote the book.”





Elaine Dundy in her her wonderful introduction to another Du Maurier book I’ll Never be Young Again, could easily have been referring to the following passage when she described Du Maurier as “One of the great monologists in twentieth-century fiction.  This is the passage in which Philip recalls the first and only night he ever spent with Rachel.

“What happened on those first few hours of my birthday will remain. If there was passion, I have forgotten it. If there was tenderness, it is with me still. Wonder is mine forever that a woman accepting love has no defense. Perhaps this is the secret that they hold to bind us to them. Making reserve of it until the last. I would not know, having no other for comparison. She was my first and last.”

One is hard-pressed in this passage to hear even the trace of a man’s voice:  Instead one hears a wavering double note, that of a young girl discovering a potent and and revelatory nature of lesbian love.  Listen to Propertius expressing the same sentiment in his clear male voice – “ cuncta tuus sepelivit amor, nec femina post te /ulla dedit collo dulcia vincla meo.” – ‘Your love has wedged in the grave all others – nor since you did, has any women placed around my neck as sweet a bond’ –  (my translation.)

Compared to Propertius, in Philip’s utterance pessesses, to my ear at least, the travested, but still unmistakably recognisable voice of a woman.

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