To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

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!

72 comments

  1. This was the first book I read by Marghanita Laski, and I must admit, you are very generous to Deborah’s character. I know you say that you are the same age, but I think being 24 then and 24 now are quite different things. The twenty-somethings of today seem to have a lot more ambition, a lot more desires, a lot more freedom to express themselves. When I was 24, many years ago, I was living in Europe with my husband, and ecstatic to have such a life (although I did not have the extensive care of a child). Still, at the end of the day, I cannot help but viewing Deborah as anything less than a slut. She slept with man after man, disregarded her son (not to mention her husband) almost completely, and I am unable to look at her with compassion. I admire how you, however, are not so narrow-minded; you are able to see her hurting side.

    1. Hi Bellezza! I think, with Deborah, it’s always clear that she never wanted the life she had. Unusually for someone of her generation, she was allowed to go to London to study art at the Slade and live independently, and that desire to ‘get out’ and go and do something more than what she would ordinarily be expected to made me realise that Deborah’s sexual pursuits were really an outpouring of her frustration at being so confined in a role she clearly never wanted and entered into without really considering the consequences. That’s why I can feel compassion for her – she is trapped in a life she is miserable in. Anyone in that situation I would feel sorry for. It doesn’t mean I agree with what she did or excuse it, I can just understand, in some measure, why she did what she did. Regardless of how different life is for 24 year olds now as it was then, 24 is still a phenomenally young age to be shackled to a life you don’t find fulfilling, and I think none of us really know what we’d be capable of until we were in the same position. I don’t think you are narrow minded at all; I’m not married or a mother so it’s easy for me to talk abstractly about this, whereas for someone like you who has such relationships, the idea of what Deborah did must be far more abhorrent and I can fully appreciate your dislike of her!

      1. “To be shackled to a life you don’t find fulfilling” would be difficult for anyone, in any situation. One can find that as a single woman, a wife, and/or a mother. I have terrible compassion for that loneliness and frustration. I have had moments in my life where I’ve been very tempted to make choices for a different lifestyle, but knowing that there is no perfectly happy place makes me be content with what I have.

        It’s interesting, as I’m more than halfway through Persephone’s book Fidelity that this issue will crop up again this weekend. I’m hoping to post on it tonight, after the thoughts which swirl through my mind settle down.

        I think that you write so beautifully. This post of yours is my favorite from Persephone weekend.

  2. A compassionate and understanding review of such a complex character, Rachel. Deborah’s tragic life -whether you agree with her choices or not- is like a trainwreck and Laski is such a compelling and talented storyteller.

    1. Thank you Claire – I don’t think I entirely agree with her choices – they certainly don’t fit with my own morals – but I found that Laski provided plenty of clues as to why Deborah turned out as she did, and those clues made me feel some measure of sympathy for her, all things considered.

  3. Ooh, interesting. As I read your review, I started thinking about Deborah as if she had been one of my children’s friends, imagining her life: first informed by her husband that his marriage vows mean nothing, then separated from her young son, emotionally abandoned by her mother, and trying to negotiate and make sense of a world altered and warped by the tragic new mores of total war. How could it surprise anyone if she made disastrous mistake after mistake, when everything she previously trusted had betrayed her? As you say, a powerful antidote to those romanticized wartime novels that I love…

    1. Exactly, Mumsy! I think you’d enjoy this. It’s a complex and interesting story about something that initially appears very black and white but as we learn more about Deborah I certainly started to be more understanding of her. I think it’s especially refreshing to read about another side of how people reacted to the war.

  4. I’ll have to check this out! The Victorian Chaise-Longue was too weird for me, but I read Little Boy Lost and liked it far more than I expected to. I’ve been wanting another Laski book that’s not TVCL. The plot by itself sounds a smidge overdone (maybe a smidge), but going from Little Boy Lost, I am not surprised Laski’s able to make it work.

  5. I just finished Little Boy Lost and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it (I was afraid the whole missing child thing would be too hard to read). It made me want to read more Laski, but I don’t think I would enjoy this one. It seems to perpetuate the lie that being at home with a child can’t in any way be fulfilling. I dare say that there are many military spouses who have to ship their mates off for a year or two at a time who would resent the implication by Deborah’s husband that fidelity is impossible. I know that wartime presents its own set of hardships, and heaven knows there was more suffering in the World Wars than many of us have ever had to endure, but I just don’t think it’s correct to assume that Deborah represented the majority of women. Clearly, as you put it, Deborah would make my “hackles rise.” πŸ˜‰
    I had a grandfather in the Battle of the Bulge, a cousin killed in Iwo Jima, and several other family members who served in WW2, and their wives were nothing like Deborah. So the picture of keeping the home fires burning is more than a good fictional story, it’s part of my family history. Those grandmothers were raising my parents and aunts and uncles while their husbands were overseas fighting. Maybe that’s what made my hackles rise?
    (Climbing off my soapbox now, she typed embarrassedly…)
    As usual, you did an outstanding job of summarizing this story, and I do give you lots of credit for being able to have sympathy for Deborah. Lest I sound too harsh (and I certainly didn’t intend to), I do have more sympathy for real life “Deborahs” than fictional ones.
    Have a great rest of the weekend and thank you for sharing this with us!

    1. Hi Susan! Very interesting and thought provoking comment, thank you!

      I think that Laski is very careful to show that Deborah was not typical, and I certainly don’t think that she was. Everyone reacts differently to adversity and some people dig themselves in and carry on, whereas others go off the rails. I think the home fires spirit was very much a reality and didn’t mean to give the impression that this story showed it to be a myth – Deborah’s story is shocking precisely because it is so a-typical.

      I’m not sure if Laski says being at home with a child is unfulfilling. Deborah is actually very unmaternal and should never had had a child – even her own mother thinks this. That’s why she is unfulfilled. It’s a difficult book to read because so much of what we take as accepted morals and behaviour is undermined and it is uncomfortable, but at the same time, I think it’s important to understand that not everyone is able to rise to the challenges that adversity brings, and also understand why that is. Laski’s portrayal of Deborah is very even handed, all things considered, and she provides enough background information to help the reader appreciate why she might be like she is, which I liked very much. There are no black and whites, just shades of grey, which demonstrates the subtlety and skill of Laski; she doesn’t rely on stereotypes.

      I’m sorry that this made your hackles rise so much but I’m glad you enjoyed the review nonetheless. You are welcome and thank you – hope you have a good weekend too!

  6. This is an excellent review, Rachel. You show a profound insight into Deborah’s character and what a genius Laski is to have created her. The book is so different from Little Boy…. but has the same strong authorial hand at work. Just as Little Boy never tips into outright sentimentality, To Bed… allows the perceptive person to have more complex feelings for Deborah than might appear possible at first glance. I am very interested in how an author achieves the effect they are looking for. What techniques outside the obvious things like metaphore and archetypes do they employ? Laski’s methods are not obvious and I will now be rereading her in order to figure her out. Hope to see you soon.

    1. Thank you Ellen! This is very different from Little Boy, but at the same time, the complexities and the moral challenge is still present, which I enjoy. Laski is very clever and is careful not to present stereotypes or stock characters, and is a very sensitive creator of character, in my opinion. I love her writing and I can’t wait to read The Village now. You will be seeing me soon!πŸ™‚ And you will get this back to reread, too!

  7. What a provocative review, Rachel. I must admit to reading this a few hours ago and having to step away for awhile and think about it. I so admire your sensitiveness to characters such as Deborah. That is not a characteristic most of us possess. Of course, such characters make for an interesting story, don’t they?

    My initial reaction from the beginning was my disdain for Graham. While men have cheated on their wives when off to war, that is usually not the first plan of action before they even leave their own marital bed!

    There were married women who cheated on their husbands during WWII, of course, but, cheating is one thing, the promiscuous behavior of Deborah goes beyond that in my opinion. I would agree with Bellezza’s comments about being 24 now being somewhat different than that of a 24 year old in the time period of the novel. Deborah’s behavior is very troubling to me and I find I dislike her without even reading about her.

    Aha, but that is the rub, isn’t it? That is what makes a book a good read and worthy of discussion and analysis and criticism. We don’t have to like the main character or sympathize with her or accept her. It is Deborah that has brought on conversation here, not the author, and that, it seems, is the sign of a book to read and the conversation you have surely started with your great review is surely to be a lively one.

    Well done, Rachel, well done!

    1. Thank you, Penny. I certainly seem to have written a controversial post!

      I can appreciate that 24 now as opposed to 24 then was very different, and Deborah did obviously agree to get married and have a child, but whether she knew really what she was getting into or not is open to debate. Her behaviour is obviously morally wrong and I don’t mean to give the impression that I can excuse what she did, because I can’t – adultery is never something I would condone. However I do think that not all of us are brought up with the same moral or have the same personal strength as others, and Laski’s portrayal of Deborah’s more than ineffectual mother goes some way toward explaining why Deborah may have found it so easy to behave as she did.

      This is a great book – very thought provoking and one that definitely incites different reactions depending on your age and personal circumstances. I should reread this when I am married and see what I think then.

      Thank you Penny!

      1. That is one of the things I like about your blog, Rachel. You have quite a conversation going on here – your own online book discussion! Your review was excellent and thought provoking and though some disagree with the character of Deborah and all that surrounds her, they all do so in a thoughtful manner.

        Laski seems to be a very gifted writer. I would recommend this for our book group, but, I checked and the book is not easily found in our area. I have found that it is the books with characters, especially main characters, that we don’t like that make for the best discussion. When we read A Reliable Wife in January, there were grumblings about not liking the book or the characters before we met. You guessed it! One of most comprehensive discussions in a long while.

        Now, I really must get busy.

  8. You argue persuasively, but you’re…wrong! Putting yourself into the place of a woman trapped in a limited world as so many were then, is imaginative and compassionate, but trust me, if you were in Deborah’s situation and time, you would not become deeply immoral and irresponsible merely because you’d been dealt (or dealt yourself) a limited pack of cards. Nope. Listen, 1941 wasn’t 1541. (I had an aunt who’d been practicing law since 1910.) Even if you were trapped by class or economics, you’re forgetting all the women in bad situations who stuck to their values. When I was 24 and a young woman in New York City, as you are now, I had a six-year-old child…and was a senior at CCNY. Of course there was more freedom for women then, 30 years after Deborah, but my point is that young women of that age are quite capable of coping when they have to. Sure, it’s wiser to wait till you’re “ready” to have children, but children have a way of not always appearing at exactly the “right” time. Sometimes they come inconveniently early, sometimes they don’t come at all when longed for, and even modern science hasn’t fixed that. If you happened to have children now, you’d care for them, and not neglect them for a posse of lovers. Even in 1941 you would have. Two days of reading your blog, and I know that! 24 is not a child – and 1941 was not an excuse. That said, have you read Laski’s The Village? Just brilliant, and much better than this one sounds. πŸ™‚

    1. Well you told me!πŸ™‚

      I don’t think Deborah behaves as she does just because she feels trapped – I think there are a myriad of reasons, not least the fact that she knows her own husband is being unfaithful too – let’s not forget that! Plus she does make sure her child is well looked after – she does love him, enough to make sure he is being looked after by the right person, which she is honest enough to recognise isn’t her.

      Obviously I don’t agree with or condone her choices, and would never go down the same route myself, but when it comes to your world falling apart, with no external support and a husband who has already said he has no intention of keeping his pants on while he’s away, I don’t think it’s easy to condemn with an iron fist Deborah’s actions.

      I’m impressed that you did all of that at my age – it makes me feel very insignificant!

  9. Brilliant thought provoking review! Thanks so much for detailing your response so articulately. Gives us lots to chew over, and you can see how Deborah’s mother lack of real love for her daughter might have been a factor in Deborah being such a selfish young woman. I’m afraid I just despised her though – thought she was pretty much a miserable, mean little worm capable of doing horrendous emotional damage to her son, but do agree with you that the power of Laski’s writing is such that she’s no stock villain.

    1. Thank you! I think Laski’s genius is quite obvious in how complex she managed to make Deborah – so complex that we all have very opposing and strong opinions of her character. As terrible as Deborah’s actions are, if you look hard enough, there are opportunities to understand and appreciate why she behaves as she does. I may have felt sorry for her, but I do still think she was weak willed and terribly damaging to her son, so we agreed on that!

  10. An excellent review and definitely thought provoking. I look forward to finding this book.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book.

  11. What would Marghanita Laski’s book have been if Deborah were shown as an unselfish, faithful wife and mother? I suppose the plot might have turned on her refusal to be tempted by approaches from any men that came her way – unlikely, perhaps, in the village situation: tongues wagging, child at home and so on. Laski had to make something of her and so she did. I haven’t read this yet, although I’m familiar with her books.

    I think that the point about women of 24 being different then is valid. So many girls were married by the time they were 21 and children quickly followed. One thing the war did was to change people’s outlook forever. Returning soldiers and their families expected – and were promised – a new world and a new start. The National Health Service is a good example. So it seems that new morals were already taking over during the war years. So often men and women thought they might not survive the war and grabbed what happiness they could.

    I am so interested to know the end and whether Deborah and Graham managed to adjust to peace time when he returned (not everyone, even the faithful, did).

    Another very astute and compassionate reveiew!

    1. I’d love to see them in 1952, Chrissy! Their seven-year itch after Graham returns home, and hasn’t quite fulfilled all Deborah’s expectations of what a man should provide. Perhaps after too many cocktails at the golf club … and Deborah no doubt wanting to seize her last chance before hitting 40 …

    2. I don’t think it would have been half as interesting a book, Chrissy!

      I think that Diana’s point is very valid too, but yours about changing values is too. Women were becoming more educated and opportunities were rapidly increasing. And too, as you say, in a war, nothing is certain, and what’s the point in sticking to morals and being miserable, I suppose, if you think you could die the next day and have a bit of happiness beforehand?

      Me too – we never get to see that part. I suspect it wouldn’t have ended well!

      Thank you Chrissy and thank you again for a wonderful and insightful comment.πŸ™‚

  12. That’s a very good point, Chrissy – the effect of wartime and wanting to grab a bit of happiness. I expect there were people of all ages who went through changes like that. It’s something I didn’t even consider in my comment, for the very fortunate reason that from my generation on down, we haven’t lived through a world war.

  13. Well done Rachel – you’ve encouraged me to read a Laski novel. Reading the other responses has been fascinating. I read this review thinkng about the women in ‘Round about a pound a week’ who are also so young to be married, with children and trying to make ends meet. The luxury of having the time for an affair – were my thoughts.

    1. Thank you! I’m sure you would find this a fascinating read – it really is so enjoyable because it’s not a passive read at all and makes you work at deciphering Deborah wonderfully.

      Your comparison with Round About a Pound a Week is very interesting – I really must read that as I know I’d love it. Such a hard life for those poor women. The luxury of an affair indeed!

  14. Good for you, Rachel. I also felt a lot of sympathy for Deborah who isn’t the most likeable of characters – but I’m always more shocked by the double standards of readers who come down so hard on her when Graham admits from the start that he isn’t going to be faithful to her. I’m sure many couples managed to be true to each other; talking to my older friends, the complete and utter terror of an unwanted pregnancy would keep you on the straight and narrow whatever the temptations. But I often think that we look back at the home-front through rose-tinted glass when, in reality, war brought outn the worst in people as well as the best. The Mass Observation archive isn’t all dear little Mrs Nella Last putting on a cheerful face … there’s plenty of cynicism, just as there’d be today.

    1. Thanks Mary, I’m glad we are of the same mind. Noone really seems to care about Graham and I don’t understand why! He does exactly the same as Deborah but it’s only her who is the villain. In every circumstance there will be people who don’t pull their weight – look at the looters in Christchurch this past week – not everyone was keeping the home fires burning and Laski was really very brave to portray that side of things.

  15. My sympathies all went out to Deborah when I read this book. I thought her husband sounded like a cad and her mother utterly fails to understand or help her own daughter. Deborah is undoubtedly a poor mother herself, but she is at least leaving her little boy in capable and loving hands whilst living a life that whilst not admirable is understandable in the live for the moment atmospgere of the war. I think you’re right to pick up on her youth – I appreciate that 24 had different expectations attached to it then, but Deborah is still very young, and clearly a woman who needs company and flattery. Her marriage might have been happy enough without the War interveaning, but it does, and though I can’t imagine behaving in the same way I can see how another woman might.

  16. This sounds so good, I’ve only read two Laskis so far but I finished Little Boy Lost yesterday and I’m waiting for The Village from my library. I’ve been trying to ration out my Persephones but I think I need to finish all the Laskis, soon.

    1. Laski really is terrific and she’s such a chameleon – all of her books have been so wonderfully different and thought provoking in their own way. I have read all of the Persephone Laskis except The Village and I am now especially looking forward to it as I enjoyed this so much!!

  17. Thank you for your considered review and recommendation. I enjoyed reading it! I have had this book on my wish list since it came out as the subject matter intrigued me. So glad it is a fantastic read by all accounts. I must try to read all of the Persephone Laski’s as they each sound so different. She seems a very talented writer.

    1. Thank you Cristina, I’m glad you enjoyed it! This really is such a brilliant book and you really have to read it yourself to come to a conclusion on the characters and events involved. All of Laski’s novels are indeed very distinctive and I can’t wait to read The Village now!

  18. Thank you for the review, Rachel! I admire the sympathy you show to Deborah. Not everyone has the strength of character, the upbringing, and the supports to make good decisions, and thank you for reminding me of that. Even when we do have strength of character, good families, and decent upbringings, we can still make bad choices that lead us down terrible paths. From what I know of you from this blog, I have a hard time seeing you do the same as Deborah in a similar circumstance, but I totally get your point that forcing women into the box of marriage and maternity at a young age when many people don’t know themselves well could have bad consequences. It still is no excuse for infidelity, but I am glad that I live at a time where I am given more choices and time to figure things out.

    1. Okay, I just read Diana Birchall’s first comment, and I think she has a point. Everyone, obviously, didn’t act as Deborah did, and in times of adversity, lots of people are able to carry the load. At the same time, not everyone is strong. I don’t think it’s an excuse for abandoning one’s children and cheating on one’s husband with multiple men, but I think Deborah may need some sympathy though her behaviour should not be condoned.

      1. Thanks Virginia! No I certainly would not behave the same – you got that right! – but that doesn’t stop me from understanding how someone could. I think anyone who is as unhappy as Deborah deserves some sympathy. We are indeed lucky that we have a lot more choices nowadays to ensure our happiness – I can’t imagine having to feel pressured to be married when still in my teens. I think you’d find this an intriguing read, Virginia – you should track it down!

      2. I’ve read Laski’s other novels, but I haven’t wanted to pick up this one because of the subject matter. At the same time, thanks for the thought provoking review!

  19. You are reminding me of The Heiress at the moment. I see such a difference in her ability to see both sides of every story since she’s been at university. It’s a lovely thing to see and makes me happy…but!

    It has been awhile since I read this story but I do remember loathing Deborah’s conniving nature. It’s a trait I absolutely can not stand! Infidelity shows a lack of respect to your partner and doesn’t sit well with me whether it is the husband or wife partaking in it. In my humble opinion, the ability to cheat on someone you’re committed to is more a character trait than the result of circumstance. Deborah was never going to be my cup of tea but bless that Marghanita Laski for getting my blood boiling over a character!

    1. Thanks Darlene! What an honour!

      Yes, Deborah is incredibly conniving and an awful liar – that’s certainly something I cannot find sympathy for. Infidelity is also something I cannot condone, but I can understand why people do it. What frustrates me is that so many readers of this book seem to be able to ignore Graham’s infidelity when his s entirely intentional from the beginning and Deborah’s isn’t. Laski is incredible, isn’t she? The strength of feeling her characters inspire is testament to the power and skill of her writing.

  20. Interesting book. Ill have to add it to my wishlist. Infidelity is a subject that (as you say) gets my hackles up, but I totally agree with how it is perfectly ok for men, as they have needs, but not women. My husband would last 2 seconds if he said that to me. LOL.
    Thankyou for this post. Ill track this book down.

    1. It’s definitely a brilliant book and I would highly recommend it – I’m so glad I read it. Ha! Same here! I’m glad to hear it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.πŸ™‚

  21. As always, a fascinating and thought provoking review, Rachel, with lots of interesting comments.

    First of all, any mother who doesn’t care about her child is a ‘baddie’ in my book, though I can understand that Deborah didn’t exactly have a good role model. But surely having a lack of something in your own childhood can make you determined to do better by your own children? As an example, my mother never showed any sympathy to us when we had childhood illnesses. Her excuse now is that her elder brothers never showed her any sympathy… I, on the other hand, have always been extremely sympathetic when my children have been ill, as I know what it’s like not to have that. So, I’m biased against Deborah right from the start!

    However, I can understand her infidelity more, if her husband said right away that he would not be faithful to her. But she seems to have taken it to extremes… Not sure if I’ll read this one. Thanks, Rachel. For once you’re not making me spend money on books I can’t resist!πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Penny! I’m very surprised by how much discussion that has generated!

      Yes same here, but Deborah doesn’t exactly not care – she just cares about herself more. Which makes sense when you read the book! I entirely agree on the wanting to do better by your own children, but somehow that often doesn’t seem to work – the abused going on to be abusers, etc. There is some psychology behind that of course!

      This might make you angry Penny but it’s still worth reading! Promise! But maybe one to borrow rather than buy!

  22. This sounds so good! I’ve read her book The Victorian Chaise Longue, which I thought was wonderful but just haven’t followed up on her other books. My Persephone book is also going to be about infidelity and oh I’m just getting to the part where I want to warn our heroine about what her husband is up to. Open your eyes woman. We’ll see how it turns out.

    1. It really is, Iliana! I loved it. Any chance you’re reading Someone at a Distance? Definitely a fantastic read – I must reread it as it was my first Persephone many years ago now!

  23. I found this one absolutely fascinating: I think it would make a great choice for a book club discussion as Deborah’s character inspires such dramatic responses.

    Although this is not the kind of wartime tale we are accustomed to reading (no Mrs. Miniver here), I find it interesting that ML posits in the narrative that it’s perhaps not as UNusual as we might think either, at least not in Deborah’s experience:

    “Once the fundamental fact was accepted that all the relationships within this circle were extra-marital ones, the social life they entailed was as conventionally ordinary as the social life of ordinary married couples.”

    1. Yes – I would have loved to thrashed this out in a book club!

      I had forgotten that quote – very true. In certain circles the wartime spirit we are used to hearing of was obviously conspicuously absent. The unwritten tales of history are always the most interesting – and shocking – precisely because they tell us what we don’t want to hear.

  24. Great review of yet another wonderful Persephone book. I love those little treasures like you do. Have to put this one on my list to buy next. Don’t you feel like we’ve discovered some kind of hidden gold mine? I’m reading ” The Victorian Chaise Lounge” by Marghanita Laski! The inside papers are beautiful, as an added bonus.

    1. Thank you, Deborah! Yes I do – I am so glad I discovered Persephone books, they consistently provide me with such pleasure! I hope you’re enjoying your current Laski, and that you will love To Bed…as much as I did!

  25. You have sparked quite a number of comments here!

    I haven’t read this book, but now, I really want to. I love your thoughtful discussion of the ambivalence of Deborah’s character. I adore female anti-heroes of this sort; you remind me of Madame Bovary or The Awakening or We Need To Talk About Kevin or… some other ones. I like the reexamination of female roles. Good for Laski and good for you and I look forward to reading this one.

    1. Hi Julia! I know, I wasn’t expecting such a response!

      Thank you – I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed reading all the discussion. It’s certainly a book you can get your teeth into and thrash out – I hope you manage to get hold of it soon and get as much pleasure from it as I did!

  26. I have been wanting to read something by Laski so this review is very timely, you mind reader, you. Now should I start here? I was also looking at Victorian Chaise Lounge, which sounds mighty interesting.

    1. Hi Nancy! I think you could start here as well as anywhere! All of Laski’s novels are very different so there’s no ‘quintessential’ Laski you should read first. I didn’t love the Chaise Longue as much as this or Little Boy Lost though. Little Boy Lost is also incredible so you must read that.

  27. Fantastic review! I have read the The Victorian Chaise-Longue and wasn’t bowled over by that but this sounds fascinating and like you say a different experience than what is often written of wartime women. Another one for the ever growing wish list 0:)

    1. Thanks Tracey! Glad you enjoyed it. I wasn’t bowled over by The Victorian Chaise-Longue either but this is on another level – you must read it!

  28. Thanks for the great review. I had previously looked at this book online for my last Persephone order, but rejected it—I’d had enough of the “let’s keep the home fires burning” and “aren’t the little women just so brave” war type stories. I know this novel was supposed to be a different take on the female experience during war, but still ………… After reading your review, however, I’m actually now quite interested in both the book and the author. On my next big book buying splurge, I suspect this will be near the top of the list.

    1. You are welcome – thanks for reading it! Yes this is definitely not a typical little woman at home war story and is truly brilliant and very different to the usual mid century fare – you must give it a go. Laski is a terrific writer and the other books of hers that Persephone has republished are definitely must reads too.

  29. This sounds like a fascinating book. Your review led me to compare the themes of this novel to the blog of high end prostitute Belle de Jour, and current questions about high end escorts/sugardaddy relationships, and whether or not polygamy is morally abhorrent. As a 16 year old, heavily influenced by society and the media, I often find these things confusing.
    With regards to gender biases and adultery, you should read this post on Jezebel that makes exactly the opposite argument: http://jezebel.com/#!5779855/adulterys-double-standard
    I sort of disagree with the article (and the writer gets some things wrong, eg. Jennifer Lopez’s personal life and details of Eat Pray Love). I think people enjoy seeing celebrities cheat, whether they are men or women, because it reinforces their opinion that celebrities are imperfect just like them. Also, LeAnn Rimes (I am not familiar with Anne Heche or Tori Spelling) seems to have left an unsatisfying marriage for love (despite the homewrecking), whereas Tiger Woods cheated on his seemingly perfect wife with numerous prostitutes. Among “regular” people, I have seen both genders villified for infidelity. Its easy to villify Deborah for abandoning her child, but at this age I can see myself doing the exact same thing. (Of course, never having read this book I dont know how it ends.)
    PS. you are an amazing book reviewer! You seem to effortlessly type the kinds of things that would take me hours to write for a school assignment.

    1. This is an excellent book indeed – I hope you can get hold of it. Thanks for the link to the Jezebel article, and for your comments- the article is very interesting, though I disagree with it, as you say – all of the women they cite who cheated didn’t have children, and all of the men they cite did – I think that is the essential difference in societal attitudes towards adultery. Besides, I think women are judged quite harshly for cheating whether they have children or not anyway – but when Laski was writing this book, it was still somewhat expected that men would play away and women would put up and shut up. Her subversion of this was very interesting for a novel of the period and was why I liked it so much. The comments from other people on how much they hated Deborah did surprise me – women seem to be very unforgiving of other women!

      Thank you very much!! Well, I am almost 9 years older than you and have several years of education over you at this stage – I certainly didn’t write at this level or with this ease at 16. So by the time you’re 24 I am sure you will write far better than I can now, as you’re already brilliant, from your comments! I was far too busy painting my nails and doing other pointless things to think as deeply as you do at 16! I am envious of all you will achieve!

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