Persephone’s new book for the Autumn/Winter is an absolute delight from start to finish. After a run of some disappointing books, Patience had me desperate to get home at the end of the day and read, so deliciously enticing and entertaining it is. It all starts very conventionally, and along typical Persephone lines; we are introduced to the sweet and innocent Patience Gathorne-Galley, a housewife not yet thirty who lives with her handsome older husband and her adored three little girls in a smart house in St John’s Wood. On the surface, her life is perfection itself; her husband is good to her, she has plenty of money, a lovely house, gorgeous babies and a pretty good social life for someone with so many children still in the nursery (I suppose it does help when one has live in maids!). However, this picture of domestic harmony is gradually dismantled as we realise that the Gathorne-Galley marriage is not exactly what it seems.
Patience is a wonderfully simple soul; one of life’s innocents, for whom complete happiness is found in flowers and sunshine and babies’ giggles. She asks for nothing great from life, and is content with the simple pleasures of her everyday existence. She is a devout Catholic and her faith is the bedrock of her life; she is not, however, one who sticks rigidly to doctrine and rules; while she is made very aware of what is Sin and what is Duty by her odious and legalistic brother Lionel, she cannot reconcile his view of the hell and damnation of Catholicism with her own experience of God. She especially can’t do this since her beloved younger sister Helen divorced and remarried; Helen’s happiness cannot possibly be Sinful in Patience’s eyes, no matter how much Lionel may try to convince her of it. Helen’s happiness in marriage, however, is rather alien to Patience’s experience of the institution. There is nothing wrong with Edward, by any means; he is handsome and kind and makes sure that Patience has everything she wants and needs to be happy, but there is no true passion or understanding in their relationship. Edward likes his needs to be met and Patience never refuses – she is nothing but a dutiful wife in every respect – but she gets no pleasure from sex, and doesn’t expect to; she has always been told that sex is for babies and the very idea of sex being for anything more than that has never so much as entered her head. Edward treats her like a pretty object rather than as a woman; to be there when he needs her and used as he pleases, and Patience’s innocence means that she dutifully and contentedly carries out this role, blissfully ignorant of what a marriage should truly be.
All of this changes due to two key events. First, Lionel tells Patience that he has seen Edward with another woman. Then, Patience goes to a nightclub with Helen, her husband Nicholas, and a few of their friends. During the course of the evening, Patience overdoes it on the cocktails, and feeling rather unwell, she makes a move to go home early. Helen asks a friend, Philip, to see Patience home, as they live in the same direction. Philip readily agrees, and during the course of the taxi ride, Patience falls head over heels in love. Before she knows what she is doing, she is back in Philip’s rather grand bachelor pad, throwing her clothes off and having her first experience of passionate, fulfilling sex. Overwhelmed, Patience confides in her sister. She doesn’t understand how her experience of sex could be so different with Edward and Philip; is it because the sex she had with Philip was Sin? Thankfully Helen sets Patience straight, and Patience realises that there will be no going back. With the help of her sister, she sets about extricating herself from her lifeless marriage in order to pursue true happiness with Phillip, whose adoration of Patience doesn’t waver even when three babies turn up to sleep under his piano!
Patience is a wonderfully funny book that has almost the whimsicality of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about it, but there is also a dark, subversive and rather radical undercurrent that is deftly handled. Edward is not really a good husband; he has frequent affairs that he only regrets when he is found out, and comes very close to raping Patience on at least one occasion. Lionel’s wife has been so browbeaten by her husband’s obsession with Sin that she has gone off to live in a convent just to get away from him. Neither Edward nor Lionel ever come to the conclusion that they are wrong in their ideas of how women should be treated, and it is up to Helen and Patience to stand up for themselves and fight for their rights to have fulfilling and passionate marriages. That a man wrote this novel in 1953 is absolutely extraordinary. A man advocating the right of a woman to experience sexual pleasure in the 1950s, the age of the submissive housewife whose fulfilment was supposed to be in having nice curtains, nice children and a husband to mix a cocktail for when he came home at six o clock, is practically revolutionary! However, Coates does feel the need to sweeten the pill a little by making Edward an adulterer; if this fact hadn’t have been revealed, I think Patience’s desire to divorce and start again would not seem quite as acceptable as it does. Patience is desperately naive, but Coates does not portray her as such to be patronising; his understanding of women is exceptionally astute, and I am sure that there were plenty of women in the 1950s who were just as innocent of the facts of life as Patience is.
Patience’s awakening is drawn with a lovely sensitivity, and when I closed the pages, I was left delighted at what a fantastic little gem of a novel this is. While it is, in many ways, quintessentially ‘Persephone’, it is also quite strikingly different, and fills a gap in the Persephone canon that I hadn’t realised was there before. It is a charming, intriguing and very clever portrait of midcentury lives and attitudes that really shouldn’t be missed. It’s certainly going to be one I come back to time and time again, and each time I read it I shall be not only reminded of how far woman have come, but also that the fight for women’s rights has not necessarily always been fought by women alone. A triumph of a novel indeed!