LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[John is in a hotel room with a young woman who has had too much to drink]
He ought, he thought, to put her to bed. But he shrank from the shocking task…
The stockings intimidated him. Never in his life, even for Mary, had he discharged this service. He knew from music-hall jokes and club anecdotes that to undress a lady was one of the supreme delights of man: and that silk stockings were perhaps the most exciting garment of all: but the thought of removing Miss Myrtle’s stockings only embarrassed him. He knew that they were held up by things called suspenders, but to reach those suspenders would involve, he feared, explorations outrageous to Miss Myrtle’s modesty, and his own, although they were technically engaged in being intimate…. He pulled gently at one of the silk stockings, near the ankle, in the faint hope that some sort of magic would assist him. But, this being vain, he decided that Miss Myrtle would have to sleep in her stockings.
commentary: This is a book about divorce in England and Wales in the years between the wars, and how difficult it was to achieve, and how ridiculous the rules were. AP Herbert really knew his stuff – and helped to change the law in this area. But he also knew how to write an entertaining and readable novel. He takes a couple, John and Mary, and shows why divorce is a sensible outcome for them, then shows how they are thwarted by the system, and pushed into all kinds of ludicrous situations – including perjury. He tells us that in Brighton hotels at the time
In the winter the business was roughly divided between divorce and tuberculosis: and in late years the consumptives had been dwindling: so the hotel could not afford to drive the gentlemen away.[Read a lot more about consumptives in last year’s raft of books about sanatoria…]
There’s more about Holy Deadlock in this entry: as I said there, it is compelling, very amusing, but also very sad. What a waste of the potential for happiness.
My one complaint is that John seems rather feeble sometimes, as in the extract above (not as bad as the hideous Tony Last in the same situation in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust), and that Mary seems to change completely between the two halves of her story. But apart from that, this is a book still worth reading, even though we take a more enlightened view of divorce now.
Fake adultery not working obviously was a thing – in this book, in Handful of Dust, and in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, published 1937, where a Countess says:
My idiot great-nephew, Hughie, has bungled matters as usual. Having undertaken to do the thing like a gentleman, he sneaked off to Brighton with a hired nobody, and the Judge wouldn't believe either the hotel bills or the chambermaid—knowing them all too well by sight. So it means starting all over again from the beginning.And Sarra Manning’s excellent recent novel, The House of Secrets, looks at world of a woman who went on those trips to Brighton for a living…
The sleeping woman, from the Athenaeum, is Saint-Tropez, Marthe Asleep in a Chaise Lounge by Henri Lebasque.
The woman in stockings is an advert from the NYPL – I flipped her through 90 degrees.
The couple sleeping is Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed from Wikimedia Commons.