Friday, April 12, 2019

'They **** you up, your mum and dad': MONICA REDLICH, No Love Lost (1937)


(To give credit where due, I was drawing a blank on a name for this post until I recalled Philip Larkin's rather wonderful if slightly profane "This Be the Verse," which fits this novel like a glove...)

I owe acknowledgements and enthusiastic thanks to no fewer than three other kind souls who contacted me regarding my recent Hopeless Wish List and each made it possible for me to read one or more of the books I didn't have a snowball's chance of getting hold of on my own. You'll certainly hear about them all in due course, but this one, like the Mabel Esther Allan titles and dustjackets I wrote about recently here, comes to me courtesy of my Fairy Godmother, and there are still other odes to her generosity to come...

I've been a casual fan of Monica Redlich since happily stumbling across her first children's title Jam Tomorrow a few years ago (before I started blogging, so I didn't write about it here). After that, I was hot on the trail of her second and final book for children, Five Farthings, which turned out to be a delight when I finally tracked it down and reviewed it here. By that time, I knew that she had also published The Young Girl's Guide to Good Behaviour (1935), which was reprinted in 2010, as well as a handful of travel books, including Danish Delight (1939), The Pattern of England: Some Informal and Everyday Aspects (1947), and Summer Landscape: Denmark, England, U.S.A. (1952). But I was extraordinarily dense about coming across her adult fiction, which includes no fewer than four novels, now mostly buried beneath the sands of time.

The first two, Consenting Party and Cheap Return, both appeared in 1934. No idea, therefore, which of these was properly her first novel, but of Consenting Party I've been able to find only an intriguing but not terribly informative advertisement from Hamish Hamilton, which appeared in the Observer late in 1934. 


Perhaps it's time to add this one to my Hopeless Wish List as well (particularly if E. M. Delafield seems to have enjoyed it)?

And perhaps Cheap Return too, based on a promising review I came across: The Age, Melbourne called it "clever and amusing, though it is impossible to approve of the lax moral standards of the central figure." That heroine attends a girls' college at London University, and the novel seems to concern the tribulations of her love life, but The Age does go on to say "the book is entertaining because of its gentle satire and its lively presentation of life in a girls' college."

By fourteen years later, when Redlich published her final novel, The Various Light (1948), she had progressed to what sounds a very odd plot indeed. I previously knew nothing about it except that Carl Jung, of all people, had recommended it to a colleague, but when I mentioned it in my wish list Grant Hurlock (who has apparently read everything) explained that Jung's interest was likely because "its adultery-minded ensemble of characters exist simultaneously in two different realms, one earthly and the other astral/heavenly that resembles a collective unconscious." Hmmmm.

1937's No Love Lost, then, falls between those two early works and the much later, more experimental one, and all I knew about it before was a blurb calling it "a simply-told story of the reactions of a schoolgirl to the unhappy marriage of her parents." More or less accurate, but perhaps just a bit reductive. As the novel begins, Hilary Leighton is leaving school for the last time (so she's only a "schoolgirl" for the first few pages—which also means this title doesn't belong after all on my Grownup School Story List, alas, though it could fit on a "widening world" list, if I ever got around to that), and finds that her parents are moving to the country.

Hamish Hamilton blurb in the Observer, 1937, with praise
for No Love Lost just above a blurb for Ursula Orange
(featuring more praise from E. M. Delafield, no less!)

The first part of the novel reads a bit like a less clever Guard Your Daughters, as here when Hilary is coming home from school for the last time, full of youthful enthusiasm:

Even a bus-ride, to-day, was different from any she had ever taken before. She was not a schoolgirl, checked off on a list and anxiously waited for until, at some stated time, she should reappear. She was a grown-up, a young woman, going where she chose to go in her own good time. The swayings and rockings of the big red bus filled her with delight; it might have been a ship, plunging into uncharted oceans.

It's not long, however, before the darker undercurrents of tension between her parents, Edmund and Francis, come in, along with what certainly appears to be some form of mental health condition in Francis—touchiness and paranoia, self-destructive behavior, much time spent in bed, and, of all things, compulsive gardening. And this part, describing what it's like for a young person to deal with a parent's mental illness, is one of the strongest bits of the novel. Redlich seems to know very vividly of which she speaks:

Hilary nowadays divided all remarks into three categories: those which were certain to start things off, those which looked risky, and those which, as far as she could see, might be perfectly safe.

As far as she possibly could she censored every remark before allowing herself to make it, and permitted none that had about them the slightest suggestion of danger. Not that one could ever be certain, of course.

Early in the novel, Hilary introduces her parents to Cynthia, a former schoolmate who is now a successful actress in London, and this too has important repercussions later on.

It's hard to discuss this book much without spoilers, so consider this my SPOILER ALERT.

Monica Redlich (second from right) and family

In short, Hilary's mother dies fairly suddenly (following a particularly excessive bout of gardening—no kidding), and the handling of her illness is odd indeed and takes away slightly from the power the scenes could have had. The doctor mentions both "hysteria" and some form of kidney ailment, but it's rather confusing where one stops and the other begins, particularly as we are also given to believe that she has simply stopped wanting to live. Subsequently, Hilary's mild romance with a school friend's brother ends because he fears her mother's instability could be hereditary, and thus begins the obsessive analysis of her parents' relationship and of her own personality that occupies much of the rest of the novel.

Later on, there's another effective passage about the haunting that Hilary can still sometimes feel even long after her mother's death:

She opened the front door and walked into the hall, her mind busy with some detail of housekeeping: and, in the instant while she pushed the door shut behind her, she was shaken violently from her preoccupation back into the present. Or was it the present—or was it perhaps the past?

She did not know. All she knew was that, as she stood there, the hall was full of foreboding, and fear, and unhappiness—not her fear, and not her unhappiness. The house was very still, but it was not the stillness of a winter morning. From upstairs, faint but utterly unmistakable, came the one sound that she would never, never forget. Francis was sobbing.

No Love Lost is ultimately a wild and woolly, intriguing mess of a novel. It undoubtedly fails on all kinds of levels as a novel, and yet somehow manages to be entertaining, readable, and even moving at times. In a way it's a rather traditional kind of novel, a bildungsroman even (how's that for a bit of lit-crit memorabilia?!), tracing a young girl's development from careless youth to maturity, via her mother's tragic death, failed romance, eventual marriage, and her subsequent coming to terms with her fears of her own emotional weaknesses. That the novel's tone varies with each stage of the plot—from the perkiness of a school story to melodramatic family angst to gushy romance to soul-searching and philosophizing—is only one of the odd elements here. At 320 pages, it's too long for the story it tells, and the last 30 pages are rather ridiculous and a bit tedious, as Hilary chews (and chews, and chews, and chews—like that bit of stubborn gristle you struggle to make swallowable at a public dinner because you don't know what else to do with it) over her parents' relationship and compares it with her own.

Most of it isn't very elegantly done, either, so by rights none of it should work…

And yet strangely it kind of does. Most of the time I found it surprisingly hard to put the novel down, and I think this has to come down to the charm and sincerity of Redlich's writing. I don't know enough about Redlich to be able to say for sure that No Love Lost is autobiographical, but it's hard to believe it's not. There's an author's note at the beginning:

Of the characters of this book two have been drawn in part from real people, both now dead. The others are imagined. - M.R.

Now, a bit of searching on Ancestry reveals that Redlich's mother Matilda died in 1927 at age 52, when Monica was only 18. That could match the details of the book, and Matilda might be one of the two real people mentioned. But Monica's father in fact lived until 1960, only five years before Monica's own death, so he can't be the other. Redlich's husband, Danish diplomat Sigurd Christensen, whom I thought could have influenced her portrayal of Hilary's husband, outlived Monica, so he can't be the other one either. Perhaps Cynthia is based on a real friend of Monica's? But her father's second wife, according to an Ancestry tree, though indeed 40 years his junior, as Cynthia is far younger than Edmund, lived until 1980. The trail goes cold.

At any rate, it's clear that at least some of the novel's events come from Redlich's own life. Much of No Love Lost has the immediacy and urgency of a letter from a close friend, and as such it's a rather special novel despite its many flaws. Thanks again to F.G. for the opportunity to read it!

By the way, it's odd to think that this novel was published the same year as Redlich's first children's book—perhaps that partly explains the varying tone of this book? But one mention in No Love Lost that caught my eye was of the "lovely church that deserves to be by Wren, only it isn't," pointing the way directly to her second children's book, Five Farthings, which, as some of you will know, is much concerned with Wren churches…

4 comments:

  1. Is the mother's name really Francis and not Frances?

    ReplyDelete
  2. OK, this is my third try - third time's the charm, or three strikes and I am out. I looked in the Los Angeles Public Library catalog, and they do list three titles by Redlich, but, alas, nary a novel. They list two travel titles (denmark) and (probably the reprint) Young Girl's Guide to Good Behavior (in the etiquette section.)
    At least it's SOMETHING!
    Tom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm curious about her travel titles, Tom, but haven't got round to them yet. (And of course they're not as tantalizingly hard to find as the fiction!)

      Delete

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