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!