LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
According to the habits of the household he was sitting in Ruby’s bedroom while she dressed. Miranda was there too, and the little dog, now nine, was coiled up on the ragged silk of the old Empire chair. The maid, told to come into the room, stared at them astonished. The young master, in a dressing-gown, was in the window seat, and the young lady, looking very well, was fully dressed. But the lady… sat before her looking -glass painting her lashes with a brush. If the peasant’s yellow skin could have responded it would have reddened when Ruby turned to speak to her, for there she was in the room with a young man and wore a lace garment that hardly concealed her breasts.
commentary: Enid Bagnold has featured on the blog for her children’s classic, National Velvet, which I like but did not adore, and found completely unreadable when I was a child. She has a very strange style, one that keeps tripping the reader up – though this book was actually an easier read than National Velvet. I have also read a biography of Bagnold in which she came over as a truly horrible person.
The Loved and Envied was commissioned on the back of National Velvet (book, 1935, film 1945, both wildly successful) but wasn’t quite what was hoped for. It’s a novel based on the character of the celebrated beauty and socialite Lady Diana Cooper – another one who doesn’t seem half as charming to modern eyes as she was to her contemporaries. Lady DC was a great friend of two blog stalwarts: Evelyn Waugh (she is the original of Julia Stitch) and Nancy Mitford (she is the original of Lady Leone) and features endlessly in their letters. There is much from her life in the book, and also much from Bagnold’s own life.
The novel is about Ruby: a very rich and well-connected woman who lives outside Paris with her husband. She is in her 50s: is perhaps her beauty starting to fade? She has always been loved and adored, as in the book’s title, and men fell in love with her. Her relationship with her long-time husband, Gynt, is uneasy. She has failed in her relationship with her daughter Miranda. She has a circle of friends and admirers.
The book is following the story through in the 1950s - though it is sometimes very hard to remember that, the book seems set at least 20 years earlier. And although the clothes are good and interesting, would a young woman really be wearing ‘striped silk muslin, long and cloudy, a Renoir-thought of a summer girl on a beach’ in 1950? The New Look had been in place for several years by then… (Daniel, care to comment? You'll probably find me a young woman dressed in exactly that...)
As the main plot proceeds, the book repeatedly dives off into a long chapter telling the backstory of some character. This was plainly planned and a feature, but it annoyed me, and I found several of the stories dull, empty and finally irrelevant. Much of it was quite unpleasant, and no-one was very happy.
There is a lot of heavy-handed advice to the daughter from her mother as she tries to mend their relationship: advice on how to get men.
‘The way you look, Miranda, is hungry, is fatal. You must have a secret life! Then they want to share it; then they want to rob you of it. Smile – as though you had a lover already! Pride. It makes them envious to see you proud!’Miranda also has a makeover session with a charming gay dress designer, who also gives her advice on men:
‘Keep quiet. Look right: keep quiet. Look like a packet of mystery done up for a birthday and don’t spoil it by being silly.’And then is pushed into a very odd plot turn. Usually I love makeover scenes – poor plain Miranda is having her life changed – but this one rather left me cold. As did the whole book.
I liked the fact that it was about older people and their lives loves and passions – that is still unusual, although I didn’t take to being told that 53 was absolutely ancient. But it was snobbish, and tiresome, and jumped around too much for me.
However, I may be unfair and uncharitable – for a quite different view go to visit Barb over at Leaves and Pages - she really liked this book, and I read it on her recommendation. And the book contains many features that I often enjoy, perhaps it caught me on an off day….
Misia at her dressing table - Felix Valotton from Google Art Project.
A Young Woman Undressing in an Interior by Delphin Enjolras – from the Athenaeum site.