Agatha could hardly believe it when Clarissa asked to be allowed to buy a racket so that she could learn to play tennis. She had never thought of such a thing before, though Kitty had often asked her to come to the Rectory in the morning to play singles with her.
Clarissa never could learn the right way to hold her racket. She held it lightly as if it were a wooden spoon with which she was whipping cream, or a feather broom dusting the ornaments. She tried to copy what David did, but as soon as she put one finger in the right position, she moved all the others, and the racket again slipped about uncertainly. David came round the net, and taking Clarissa’s hand under his own, he put her fingers one after the other into place, and held them there. It was then that Agatha, sitting beside the court, suddenly saw his face. At the touch of Clarissa’s hand, something stirred in him and about him. It was indefinable— like the vibration of the air seen across a field on a hot summer’s day. It changed him. Agatha knew that in that moment he was aware only of Clarissa: he had forgotten the game of tennis.
observations: Barb over at Leaves and Pages was recommending Edith Olivier recently, so I looked the writer up on Wikipedia – she was very well-connected, and knew many of the cultural figures of the 20th century, and her writing is admired in a quiet way.
The Love Child seemed a good place to start – it has the huge advantage of being very very short, a novella. I read it on my Kindle (another of Bello’s excellent reprint series), but I’m guessing 100 pages or so.
And what a great read it is: weird and spooky, and very hard to categorize. Agatha Bodenham is left alone when her mother dies: she is – the reader surmises – an old maid, comfortably off but with no prospect of ever marrying. As, bereaved, she prepares to live alone, she remembers her imaginary friend when she was young. She used to play with Clarissa & talk to her, but a mean governess put a stop to all that. As she remembers this unfairness, Clarissa starts to come back. At first only Agatha can see her. She is part of Agatha’s life, and Agatha loves her dearly. ‘Agatha was Clarissa’s only toy, and she was Agatha’s.’ And now she takes solid form. But she grows up: is she going to want to be more than Agatha’s creation? You can see the trouble coming in the extract above.
This is an extraordinarily creepy book, very clever and very well-written. Olivier just presents the situation, she doesn’t explain whether Clarissa is real or supernatural, or how any of this happens, how Agatha has conjured up the child. No-one knows:
She could not altogether banish from her mind the uneasy feeling that Clarissa’s existence depended on her own immediate presence— that if you happened to find the child alone, you just wouldn’t find her at all.The story becomes very tense, and you really really want to know (and fear) what is going to happen – luckily, you can read the whole book in one sitting, which is what I did.
It’s a surprisingly funny book: I liked this about Agatha:
Cakes and puddings had been the great events of her days, until this degraded taste was slowly eradicated by years of good manners and bad cooking.The first person who can see Clarissa is the garden boy, and so he is questioned:
Agatha looked stately. She could do this with a garden boy.At one point Agatha is panicked into telling a policeman that Clarissa is her illegitimate child: but no-one really believes this, simply because it is so unlikely.
This is a perfect story: exactly the right length, beautifully constructed and weirdly involving, with some beautiful writing.
One coincidence: Agatha & Clarissa are two of Agatha Christie’s first names - and this book has echoes of Christie's short story The Last Séance. It also reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. The picture we used for the Tom’s ghost-friend Hatty could have been the young Clarissa, see photo right.
The top picture is the cover of a Boston newspaper, the 2nd one is from a 1920s book called Lawn Tennis for Girls .
Extra credit: Shortly after I wrote this, my daughter gave me a book about the WI – the Women’s Institute, an organization to get women together. There was a reference to an Edith Olivier editing a book of recipes from Wiltshire housewives, and I would be 99% certain that it is the same person. I like to think of her spending her weekends at posh houses like Wilton, and being photographed by Cecil Beaton, then rushing back to attend the WI meeting. And plenty of recipes for the cakes and puddings mentioned above.