Sunday, August 4, 2013

KATHLEEN FARRELL, The Cost of Living (1956)

In lieu of a dust cover...

I came across Kathleen Farrell, a now almost completely forgotten writer who published five novels in the 1950s and early 1960s, via Nicola Beauman's The Other Elizabeth Taylor.  Beauman mentions Farrell as a member of "The Lady Novelists' Anti-Elizabeth League," a group of writers including Olivia Manning, Kate O'Brien, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Kay Dick, Farrell's partner of many years, who all, according to Beauman, systematically disparaged Taylor in their reviews of her work.

If this is true, it may have been all for the best for Taylor's eventual literary standing, since she is probably more widely and seriously read today than any of the anti-Elizabeth writers, but that's neither here nor there.  The point, for me, was that here was a writer I'd never heard of.  Ah, the joy of discovery!  And the fact that one of the only tidbits of information I could find online was that her novels were compared to Barbara Pym's only made the find more tantalizing.

Farrell's five novels were Mistletoe Malice (1951), which apparently uses a Christie-esque country house setting for a dark comedy of dysfunctionality, Take It to Heart (1953), The Cost of Living (1956), The Common Touch (1959), and Limitations of Love (1962).  The Guardian's obituary of Farrell also refers to an earlier work, Johnny's Not Home from the Fair (1942), saying intriguingly that "it hovers somewhere between a memory and a ghost story."

Happily, the San Francisco Public Library had The Cost of Living waiting patiently on the shelf (it had probably been waiting for a good many years...), so I picked it up—and had a surprising amount of trouble putting it down.

It's premise is simple: Two single women friends who live in the same apartment building—Marianne, an impoverished freelance typist in her mid-thirties with a perhaps somewhat uncertain sexuality, and Alexandra, 26, a similarly impoverished freelance portrait painter—decide to have a party to meet new men.  The party itself occupies the short first chapter, and the remainder of the novel deals with its aftermath, as the two women deal with the new people they've met. 

All of which is probably more a convenient frame on which to hang a lot of wonderfully cynical dialogue and Marianne's jaded commentary than it is a "plot" per se.  And that's okay by me—readers of this blog know that "finding out what happens" is not a major motivation in my reading most of the time—but it's something to keep in mind if you don't happen to feel the same.

The party is really Alexandra's idea.  She is younger and more innocent than Marianne, and certainly more romantic.  Marianne's thoughts on the party, meanwhile, give us an idea of where she's at emotionally:

It was useless to explain to Alexandra that I had long ago decided that I did not particularly wish to get married, and that I would just as soon remain in a state of spinsterish discomfort as scheme to embark upon another state which might turn out to be just as uncomfortable, with the added disadvantages of being unfamiliar.

But the party goes forward and the two women do indeed meet new people, including Donald, a bus conductor who has propositioned Alexandra on his bus (and who takes his cultural self-improvement with deadly middlebrow seriousness); Marius, a ghost writer, and his “Mummy,” a flamboyant middle-aged woman whom Marianne and Alexandra seem to see as their possible future; Bernhardt whom Alexandra invites as a possible match for Marianne, but who is only interested in analyzing her for his reductive study on women, and who at any rate brings the lovely Pisa with him—who, in one of the party's repercussions, will wind up as Marianne's roommate; and a group of Peters, who, it is suggested, may be gay, but one of whom Alexandra becomes involved with anyway.

The complications resulting from the effort to meet new people and engage with life—the "cost of living" of the title—are too complex to describe in detail and would spoil some of the fun anyway.  Of course, when I say "fun," it is perhaps a relative term, as The Cost of Living is, though very funny, anything but cozy reading, and if you don't enjoy very dark humor, the fun may be mitigated a bit.

There are certainly examples of very Pym-like humor.  Farrell even uses the "as if" technique I talked about in relation to Pym's A Glass of Blessings:

Bernhardt took my hand absent-mindedly, held it as though it were a pig’s trotter which he had not made up his mind whether he would buy, then, sighing noisily, kissed my fingers three times—damp, cold little pushes—after which he dropped my hand unceremoniously…

Or this example, featuring the almost stereotypically down-to-earth cleaning woman who helps out now and then:

Almost before I had reached the kitchen, Mrs. Aitch stepped heavily and swiftly in by the back door, which either Pisa or I had forgotten to lock the night before, making my scalp tingle with the sudden horror of her forceful entrance. She always came in as though she were taking the flat by storm and had been lying in wait for the crucial moment.

But even some of the novel's funniest moments have a darker edge than we would be likely to see in Pym:

Mummy, regardless, was dancing the Charleston. She certainly had remarkably beautiful legs, and I wondered whether she spent hours with her legs straight in the air, holding in her stomach muscles, or whatever one is advised to do. I decided that she just had beautiful legs, which nothing and no one could take from her. Only death. It was almost a consolation to envisage the possibility of my having perhaps twenty years of walking about on most ungainly legs, while Mummy and her slim, slim ankles decomposed.

And ultimately Marianne's relentlessly cynical observations of the life around her—especially Alexandra's, with whom Marianne may be a bit obsessed—give a glimpse of a genuinely sad, disappointed woman, used to missing opportunities and to shrugging it off with humor:

‘I get to the state when I actually recall the days or months, or ever years, the whole divisions of life, by what hasn’t been done. I find myself thinking: yes, that was the summer I didn’t get to Italy; or that was the Christmas I didn’t send any cards. Then there are always the books I mean to read, and the friends I mean to get in touch with—all adding up to a monstrous chase where the hare’s always a different one, but always gets away.’

Perhaps most revealing of all is Marianne's fantasy of a peaceful escape from the complications of life:

Then, as often before, I dreamed myself to sleep with remembrances of a summer life in the country: the scent of grass, new-cut, and warm, soft-aired evenings; watering and clipping and planning for the future—a future which has already gone. The hot, bright mornings, spent weeding the strawberry beds, picking raspberries, tasting the summer all the time, every hour of the day. Being part of a garden, part of a wood, part of a meadow; part of the all the thriving busyness around, of growth and decay, and building up to begin again.

In the final sentence, a fantasy of life in the country, peacefully gardening, seems—perhaps even subliminally for Marianne—to have become a fantasy of death in the country, quietly moldering away in the hope of a new beginning.

The Cost of Living is certainly a novel that can amply repay the effort of a second—or even third—reading.  There are complications in the two women's relationship that could be developed much more fully than I can do here, and meanings to be teased out of the variety of useless men who appear.  And Marianne's seemingly determined spinsterhood could be productively compared to the treatment of spinsters in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, or in the work of Edith Olivier or Rachel Ferguson.

There may even be depths of meaning about the plight of women writers, suggested by Marianne's work as a typist (or perhaps I'm just saying that as an excuse to share one more favorite quote…).  Her hilarious comments on a devastatingly bad novel manuscript by a male writer, with its ludicrous female lead, perhaps imply a critique of how men view women (when they bother to view them at all):

By that time I had nearly finished the novel. It seemed to get longer and longer towards the end; and sadder, too, and much sillier. There was only one woman in it, and she spent most of her life retching and clinging to park railings; and when she wasn’t doing that she was leaning her forehead against the wall in some dark alleyway. Leaning her forehead against the wall was to stop her being completely overcome by nausea. I can’t remember that it ever did. I wondered how such young men managed to make women feel so sick, so often. And I thought, poor young men, how they suffer.

Regardless, there is plenty of both depth and fun in this novel to warrant its reprinting.  It might perhaps even find more of an audience today than it did at its first publication, and it's rather surprising that no savvy publisher has set its sights on Farrell.  Persephone?  Faber?  Capuchin? 


1 comment:

  1. I was friends with Kathleen Farrell in the final years of her life. I think her novels remain pertinent and pithy, they have a modern edge still, but that is why they weren't great sellers at the time. Her view of life was a little too arch, and somewhat sly in some of her far from gentle, but subtle observations. She is perfect for being a literary rediscovery.


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