The Love Child by Edith Olivier

Simon sent me this slim little Virago many months ago when I was still living in New York. I promised to read it within a month, as I demanded that he do the same with Illyrian Spring. To my shame, I didn’t hold up my side of the bargain and Simon hasn’t let me forget it since. Well, those days of smug finger pointing are over, because I have finally read it! I’m sorry I waited so long, because it’s a fascinating novella that reminded me very much of Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s in its exploration of the delusions created by the overactive imaginations of closeted early 20th century women.

Agatha Bodenham finds herself alone in her comfortable home at the age of 32 when her mother dies. She and her mother did not have a particularly emotionally close relationship – in fact, Agatha has never really let anyone into her inner life – but the loss of the familiar figure she shared her home with triggers an immense sense of loneliness. With no family or friends apart from her faithful servants, Agatha decides to reach back into the recesses of her past and reconjure the imaginary friend of her childhood, Clarissa, in order to keep her company. At first it seems impossible that the almost touchably real Clarissa of her nursery days will reappear, but she does; before long, Agatha’s depression is lifted as she fills her days talking and playing and laughing with the sprightly little girl she last saw when she was just ten years old. Agatha is faintly aware of the absurdity of the situation, and is initially careful to conceal her imaginary relationship from the servants, but everything becomes very strange when Clarissa becomes visible to others, and the little girl who was just a figment of Agatha’s imagination takes on human form.

Clarissa is passed off as an adopted child, and from then on she becomes a part of the household, doted on by the servants and adored by Agatha, whose possessive, obsessive love for her ‘love child’ is rooted in a deep fear of losing the little girl she has created. Life is perfect and their relationship a mutually happy and fulfilling one until Clarissa reaches her teenaged years and other interests appear. Tennis lessons, driving lessons and a handsome boy divert Clarissa’s attentions from the largely safe, imaginary worlds she and Agatha have inhabited for so long, and as Agatha feels her hold on her pretend daughter begin to erode, the fear of losing her leads to terrible consequences.

I suppose you could place this in the general genre of ‘spinster’ novels, as it explores the frustrated maternal feelings and deep loneliness of a woman who has never had the opportunity to truly love or be loved by another. She creates Clarissa to fill this void, but her love for this imaginary girl becomes all consuming to the point where a life without her in it induces panic and despair. Clarissa is a figure of whimsy, or fantasy, and this is why it reminded me of The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s; we have to take leave of our rational expectations as readers in order to truly immerse ourselves in the impossible events that unfold. I gather there is some sort of sub genre of fantastical spinster fiction written in the 20’s and 30’s as I have come across a fair few. I find it very interesting that these frustrated romantic/maternal feelings felt by spinsters are repeatedly portrayed by various novelists as being channelled onto imaginary beings in order to be realised and experienced by these women who have ‘missed out’ on the normal routes of wifehood and motherhood.

These ‘surplus’ women; for they were victims of the surfeit of spare women after WW1 knocked out an entire generation of young men, are portrayed as neurotic, delusional, and lonely. Their only meaningful relationships are with fantasy figures of their own making. Why is this? May Olivier’s Harriett Frean is much the same; she talks to herself and is totally incapable of forming relationships with anyone. Was it a certain type of governess educated, properly brought up, over protected girl who ended up emotionally stunted like this? Or was it just the interminable years of waiting and hoping for romance and motherhood that never came that ended up driving them over the edge into a fantasy world, a way of escaping the reality of a dull, eventless life with precious little to look forward to?

Edith Olivier’s prose is sensitive, gentle and compassionate; tinged with melancholy,The Love Child explores the pain felt by the lonely who have great capacity for love, but no one on whom to bestow their feelings. It made me wonder just how many women did end up like this; trapped in lives that were so stifling and lacking in opportunity that they were forced to retreat into their imaginations in order to make life bearable. Do read this if you get the chance; it’s a rather unique, beautifully written little gem that is moving and thought provoking and refreshingly different. I will be looking out for more of Edith Olivier’s novels in the future; thank you for the introduction, Simon!

24 comments

  1. Oh, Rachel, I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the title to this post! It’s happened! You’re a star (although I will miss my smug finger-pointing. I’ll have to take up smug finger-painting instead.) To be honest, Olivier’s other novels aren’t anywhere near as good, but this one is good enough to make up for it!

    (HUGS!)

    1. It did happen! And I am very grateful for the gift and for your patience in waiting for me to open it!! You just made me spit out my tea with your finger painting…silly thing! That’s a shame about her other novels – but saves me spending lots of money on average literature I suppose!!🙂

  2. I haven’t read this and didn’t think I’d want to but you do make it sound interesting especially in the light of the spinster themes. So if it comes my way, I shall definitely give it a whirl.

  3. You’ve given me something to think about as I had no idea that this sub-genre existed. How intriguing and yet frustrating! But (and perhaps you’ve had the same experience) given the looks of astonishment by other women when I mention travelling abroad on my own I’m not completely shocked that women are written about in this manner. We are not feeble beings!

    Highly respecting your taste in literature, and Simon’s, I won’t hesitate to snap up a copy of this should I come across one.

    1. Intriguing and frustrating indeed, Darlene! But perhaps a genuine response to how many of them felt? It’s easy to feel useless when you are treated like you are useless, certainly. Those poor women!

      I’m glad to hear it Darlene! I think you’d really find this fascinating.

  4. I’m with Darlene: a “fantastical spinster fiction written in the 20′s and 30′s” sub-genre (or maybe niche-genre)? That deserves a special spot on it’s own🙂

  5. Fascinating, Rachel. This sounds like an interesting read and your questions bring forth many issues. I think that the alternatives for women of the post WWI era, especially those of privilege, were so few that an alternative world, especially for an active imagination, would foster this behavior.
    It’s interesting that the servants were also involved with Clarissa.
    Being a child of the ’60s in American, “love child” brings forth a different meaning. Isn’t it funny how words and phrases morph over the years?

    1. Thank you, Penny – I think you are exactly right. Such a narrow sphere of influence would surely trigger some degree of mental instability in even the sanest person. It’s funny – Agatha calls her a ‘love child’ to get out of a sticky situation but even though she means in THAT sense in the situation, she is really a love child in the sense that she is born of an emotional need rather than a night of passion!!

  6. I would be intrigued to know what else you’ve read in this sub-genre (esp since I’m about to write a chp of my DPhil on it!) Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend-Warner, Brontes Went to Woolworths and (just about) Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan are the only ones which come to mind. But I’d love to read more! (And there is Miss Hargreaves, of course…)

    1. Now you’re asking, Simon! I can’t think off the top of my head but I will come back to you if anything springs to mind. I’m sure I’ve read one or two others…

  7. I immediately thought of Miss Hargreaves when you said the “love child” came to life (Simon has had such an influence!😉 ). I’m with others who didn’t realize there was another sub-genre out there to be explored. I’ll have to keep my eye out for this one — you really have a way of selling me on books, Rachel.🙂 Thanks for the review.

    1. You are welcome, Susan! That pesky Simon has a lot to answer for, doesn’t he?!😉 I am glad you’ve been tempted by this…I should get paid, shouldn’t I?!

  8. I had the same thought as Penny when I looked at the cover! Nothing could be further from the more recent image, judging by your compelling and insightful review.

    I’m in just the right mood for something light and fanciful after reading a couple of very painful books (the last war) so I’m off to Amazon to see what’s in store there.

    PS I hope you’re enjoying your new post!

    1. Yes – she’s certainly no ‘love child’ in our sense of the word!! Though there is a funny scene about that in the book. I think you’d enjoy this but maybe it’s not in the light and fanciful bracket – it’s a bit sad!

      Thank you – the new place is perfect! I shall post more about it when I have the internet at home again!

  9. I would guess (although I have no scientific research to back it up) that WWI (and, in the American south, the Civil War) contributed heavily toward the entry of women into the arts and other areas–if only because there were so few marriageable men left to provide support for the female population. In New Orleans, Newcomb College was opened specifically to address the need to provide acceptable employment for women. Newcomb produced a vast amount of pottery during the early 20th century. What’s interesting is that now whenever a piece of Newcomb pottery appears on the “Antiques Roadshow,” it’s always appraised at a very high price because pottery from that place and time is now considered so collectable, although when new it sold for only a few dollars at most.

    1. Oh yes, I would quite agree – I hadn’t heard of Newcomb College before, Deb – how fascinating! I’m going to look it up. Thank you for writing about it!

  10. I found Miss Hargreaves and The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s surpassingly strange – especially the way the girls in The Brontes used their imaginary creations as a weapon against the governess. Those two books seemed to be “light fiction,” but there was a definitely dark thread or two running through them. Is the Love Child similar in tone?

    1. Oh yes – the thread of darkness! There isn’t really a thread of menace in The Love Child, no – Agatha is possessive but not in a way that would harm anyone. I think it’s more to do with the profound sadness of being lonely and how that can push the mind to its limits than anything sinister.

  11. That sounds like quite an incredible read. It reminds me, oddly, of “Beloved,” though of course, played out in an entirely different time and setting. I loved the “Brontes Went to Woolworths” and anything that goes with the imagination to the edge of sanity. That sounds peculiar but it’s true! The imagination dealing with loneliness is an incredible place and though heartbreaking, is so important to read about. I couldn’t tell you exactly why it’s so important but perhaps it has to do with understanding suffering and obtaining greater empathy for ourselves and others.

    1. Interesting comparison, Catherine – I would never have thought of that. Beloved is certainly an interesting exploration of the maternal bond. Oh yes, I quite agree – loneliness is one of the most intensely sad places to be in emotionally and I think having empathy for people who are deeply alone is incredibly important. Especially as it can lead to serious mental health issues.

  12. hi recently going thru my mom’s old books I found a 1st edition ob “The Love Child” – is there any value in this tomb- it is in average condition

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