It’s always good to have an excuse to read a Persephone, so thanks to Claire and Verity for Persephone Reading Weekend! And thanks too to Ellen, a dear reader of my blog, who lent me a Persephone to read as I am far from my own collection and the Persephone shop. I have been wanting to read To Bed With Grand Music since it came out, as the very subversive depiction of wartime life intrigued me immensely; no charity bazaars and ration queues and cheery keep the home fires burning spirit are found within the pages of this rather incendiary novel, which will forever have me doubting the rose tinted view of women in wartime that I had previously believed so fervently.
The novel opens with Deborah Robertson and her husband Graham lying in bed the night before Graham is to be shipped off to a cushy office job in Cairo. The likelihood is that Graham will be gone for at least three or four years, and the thought of abstinence for such a length of time is intolerable for him. As such, he promises Deborah that though he may have sex with other women, he won’t truly be unfaithful to her, as he couldn’t possibly fall in love with anyone else. Deborah accepts this, but promises that she will be faithful on all fronts, as she has their little boy Timmy to think of, and she expects that home and hearth will fill her hours tolerably until Graham returns. However, life with Timmy and the housekeeper in a sleepy Hampshire village soon becomes deathly dull for Deborah, who feels taunted by Graham’s jealousy inducing letters of high jinks in Cairo. Deborah decides that she will be a better mother by keeping busy and getting a job to help the war effort. Though her first attempt fails due to her missing Timmy, soon, with her sly and pragmatic mother’s support, she heads off to London to do an office job in the War Office. Little Timmy is left at home with Mrs Chalmers, the elderly housekeeper, and Deborah moves in with her racy old Slade school friend, Mady, whose marriage is all but over and lives a life of glamour and genteel debauchery behind the blackout curtains of wartime London.
At first, after a one night stand she feels sickened by, Deborah sticks to her principles and stays in every night, refusing Mady’s invitations to dinner and parties with handsome men. She lives for the weekend to go home to her little boy, who is increasingly growing apart from her. Eventually, Deborah is swayed by the charms of an American, Joe, whose pregnant wife has asked him not to cheapen their marriage by sleeping with just anyone, and whose feelings about infidelity match Deborah’s own. As long as they don’t fall in love, they are just two people who love their spouses, fulfilling their sexual desires. However, before long, the lines get muddied, and Deborah is being showered with expensive gifts, far beyond Graham has ever had the power to give. Used to the constant attention and companionship, when things end with Joe, she moves on to Sheldon, and then to Pierre, who Deborah asks to teach her how to be a good mistress. It is at this point that Deborah changes from being a naive, lonely woman desperate for companionship and becomes a calculating sexual predator, seeking to charm and seduce any man who comes her way. Her behaviour becomes more and more shocking up until the spectacular end, when it seems that Deborah really does not have any redeeming characteristics about her whatsoever, and her moral compass appears to have become completely and utterly shattered.
Deborah is very much an anti-heroine, a woman whose lack of maternal instincts and predatory, fickle nature would cause many a woman to raise her hackles. She is near impossible to like, identify with, or sympathise with, and her selfishness and lack of conscience are very shocking to read about. She cheerfully lies to Graham, to her son, to her friends, to her mother; she will do anything to get what she wants. However, Deborah is, thanks to Laski’s excellent characterisation, far more three dimensional than a stock pantomime villain. One sentence in this book struck me more than any other – when Deborah reveals to one of her men that she is but 24. That’s the same age as me. If I had been married at 21, become a mother at 22, and left by my husband at 24, stuck in a cottage in the middle of nowhere with no-one but a toddler and an elderly housekeeper for company, I’d be miserable, restless and open to the temptations of glamour and male attention promised by a single life in London too.
Deborah seems so adult that it’s easy to forget that she is a mere child, really. She is naive, easily led, and far too restless to have settled down so young. Her rather odious mother, who is hardly moral or full of motherly affection and wisdom, encourages Deborah’s behaviour by packing her off to London with nary a backwards glance, despite knowing full well what her daughter is like. She has offered little support or company while Deborah has been alone without Graham, and makes no attempt to help Deborah find fulfilment within the domestic sphere. Deborah has no friends, no parental guiding hand, and no-one to turn to except Mady and her string of male admirers. I gathered from Deborah’s rather stuffy and arms-lengthish relationship with her mother that she had never really felt loved by her, and her aborted time of freedom in London to study at the Slade, which ended with her very early and rushed marriage to Graham, who was not the man of riches and glamour she had dreamed of marrying, meant that she didn’t get the opportunity to achieve any of the things she had wanted to for herself. Motherhood and the cares of hearth and home clearly stifled her and made her feel lonely and isolated, and when her opportunity came to live a little, and make the most of the beauty she was blessed with, I don’t really blame her for wanting to take every advantage of it.
By the end, granted, Deborah has become intolerably selfish, greedy and callous, used to the glamorous and commitment free life of a girl about town. However, her transformation is, in some ways, understandable; so trapped was she by the early responsibilities of house, husband and child, that she is terrified at the thought of being confined in the role of wife and mother forevermore, and so she rebels against it as fiercely as she can. While there is no excuse for infidelity and for virtually abandoning your child, at the same time, Deborah is an example of what the limited roles for women and the pressure to marry early during this period could cause. The fact that Deborah would rather spend all night out partying and wake up with a stranger rather than be with her husband and child seems abhorrent, but then we must remember that she is only 24, and already condemned to a life she neither has an aptitude or an enjoyment for. If I consider my life, now, at the same age; living alone in New York, free to do as I please, I can’t imagine having to be responsible for a child and settled with a husband. I’m nowhere near ready for such commitments, and far too selfish to have to submit my desires to the needs of someone else. Deborah is the same, but she didn’t have the option to live as I do. Luckily, with the clocks fast forward to 70 years from when To Bed With Grand Music is set, society no longer compels women to marry young and have no life outside of the home. I am free to fulfil myself how I wish, but Deborah wasn’t, until the war gave her a fresh chance at striking out and fulfilling her desires. Deborah’s desires and behaviour may not be morally right, but they are, to me, anyway, somewhat understandable. Unlike other reviewers, I didn’t find Deborah completely and utterly abhorrent. I felt very sorry for her, in fact. If only she had been born a few decades later, I think she would have had a much happier life.
Also, much is not said in this novel; we never hear about what Graham has been up to in Cairo, and Deborah’s letters, filled with lies, are much the same as Graham’s. Deborah is probably not the only one in their relationship who has been unfaithful, and Graham has hardly had a hard time of it, being billetted to a rowdy and fun loving camp in cosmopolitan Cairo, well out of any danger. Even so, it always seems that female infidelity is more shocking and frowned upon than male; male infidelity is almost expected, and brushed to one side, whereas women who stray are branded as harlots. Graham tells Deborah he will sleep around as if it is an accepted fact that men have ‘needs’ and women don’t; this ridiculous and sexist attitude is, I think, played with quite well by Laski. Graham should be the villain of the piece; he intends from the start to be unfaithful to his wife, whereas Deborah has every intention to remain faithful to her husband. However, we only get to see Deborah’s experiences, whereas Graham’s are reduced to the odd brief letter, behind which any number of lies and infidelities could be hidden. As such, Deborah becomes a paragon of vice and Graham becomes the wronged husband, even though really, he has probably wronged his wife just as much. However, because Deborah is a woman, and a mother, we detest her for her behaviour, and manage to completely excuse the midnight prowlings of poor cuckolded Graham. Interesting, isn’t it?
No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life, and Marghanita Laski proves herself once again to be an absolutely phenomenal story teller. Why her books fell out of print, I cannot understand. This has become one of my favourite Persephones; complex, thought provoking, subversive and fascinating, I couldn’t put it down. Read it!