Here's a book I had come to believe I'd never have the chance to read. It appeared, along with four of Watson's five other novels, on my first Hopeless Wish List back in 2013 (the fifth being, of course, the wonderful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, reprinted by Persephone). None of Watson's other books are available much of anywhere outside of national libraries, and copies come up for sale only rarely and at extravagant prices (a copy of Watson's debut, Fell Top, recently came up at just over $100—somewhat tempting, even at that price, I confess, especially with its intact dustjacket, but I resisted).
So thrilled doesn't half describe my feelings (not to mention astonished) when Kelsey, a very kind and generous reader of this blog, emailed me a few weeks ago and asked if I'd like to borrow her copy of Watson's second novel, Odd Shoes (1936). Wouldn't I just! Although my TBR list as it stands will take about 20 years to read through, I had to bump this right to the top, and Kelsey's book had a nice little jaunt to San Francisco out of the deal. (By the way, you can read Kelsey's own Goodreads review of the book here.)
I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading. Watson's Guardian obit, one of the only sources of information about her work, called Fell-Top "a steamy, rustic novel in the Precious Bane mould" and referred to Odd Shoes as "similarly racy." And racy it must indeed have seemed in the mid-1930s. In its way, Odd Shoes makes Lady Chatterley's Lover look tame (except that Watson avoids the four-letter words Lawrence enjoyed so much). But in fact it's far more subtle, intelligent, and compassionate than any ordinary potboiler, and it's one of only a handful of novels I know of from the period that focus in any explicit and honest way on female sexuality. For the most part, women in Watson's story are the desirers, not merely the objects of desire as they are in so many other authors' work.
|A beautiful photo of Watson from |
the Persephone Post a few weeks back
Set in the mid 19th century, Odd Shoes focuses centrally on Ann MacDonald, whose illegitimate birth, as well as the preachings of a fanatical Scotch minister in her youth, have constrained what is otherwise a passionate nature. In the course of Ann's story, more or less from birth until old age, we come to know Ann as a challenging, conflicted, often difficult, but ultimately lovable character. But we also get vivid portraits of an array of other women. There is, for instance, a brief glimpse, just at the beginning of the novel, of Ann's unrepentent mother, who thoroughly enjoyed the lovemaking that made her an unmarried mother. And there's Mrs Lorton, the gruff but soft-hearted woman whose companion Ann becomes in Newcastle, and whose eventual legacy helps Ann—along with her tame but loving husband Edward—set up their business.
Ann's daughter Elizabeth figures prominently, married off at age seventeen to a wealthy man more than twice her age, whom she initially adores (and has wonderful times with in the boudoir, we gather) but whose jealousy and dominance wear thin over time. Despite having been raised for strict moral standards by Ann, Elizabeth has a mind of her own and, like the grandmother she's never known, sees no shame in her sexual enjoyments.
There's Emmeline, Elizabeth's sister-in-law, who, frustrated to be denied the freedoms her brother has, retreats into a loveless marriage of prestige and prudery. And there's Lil, Ann's daughter-in-law, a vividly sexual former prostitute who falls in love with Ann's son Ned, but whose love is based at least as much on Ned's physical beauty as on his personality, a kind of physical passion often portrayed in men but rarely in women. Intriguingly, Lil embraces the opportunity to seize on the peaceful respectability Ned offers and maintains a stubborn affection for Ann even in the face of Ann's disapproval.
The style of Odd Shoes is surely intended to evoke the novels of the 19th century in which it's set. George Eliot, radical as she was for her day, might have been shocked by Watson's oversexed heroines, but she would have been perfectly at home with the novel's style and scope. But although the novel is set in the mid 19th century (presumably to allow Watson to show her extraordinarily liberated women rebelling against the oppression of their time—there's a fabulous and unintentionally [or perhaps not?] double-entendre reference to one of the women being "damned by her period"), there is remarkably little historical detail to anchor the story. Apart from some references to the American Civil War late in the book, one knows nothing of what's going on in the outside world, except that society is moralizing and prudish.
Along the same lines, it's not entirely realistic that all of these lusty, independent-minded, self-aware feminists were grouped in a single family in the middle of 19th century England. But Watson certainly seems to be having fun with her fantasizing, projecting the sensibilities of a 1930s author (fairly radical even for the 30s, really) onto women of an earlier period and imagining how they would have disrupted and disturbed everyone around them. And although her prose is a bit dry at times, especially in the early chapters, with lots of summarizing of events that keeps the reader at a distance rather than part of the action, something kept pulling me compulsively forward. There are some glimpses of surprising wit (even just a touch of Miss Pettigrew's wit and energy in a couple of spots) and a general sense of the joys of life, even when the characters are experiencing sorrow or pain.
There's also a really satisfying, if slightly melancholy, ending that involves significant growth for Ann, who has tended throughout the novel to set herself rather narcissistically at the center of everything—first as the self-righteous guardian of everyone else's morality, and then, following a pivotal event, as the martyr who sees other people's failures as entirely due to her own influence. It's delightful to meet, at the end of the book, a rather more subdued and cheerful Ann who doesn't have to be the arbiter of the world.
When I was first bemoaning the lack of availability of Watson's novels, Nicola Beauman assured me in an email that I wasn't missing much, and I can quite see why. Odd Shoes is not a novel many people would find a "must read," and it's nothing like the effervescent joy of Miss Pettigrew. But it's nevertheless a striking novel and perhaps a significant one in the history of feminist fiction, and it's one I'm terribly glad to have had a chance to read. Consider these snippets:
Ann first discovering the sensual pleasures of married life:
Inarticulate in her exaltation and bitterly ashamed and fearful in the aftermath, she uttered no word to Edward, nor ever tried to. She may not always be strong enough to conquer the urgings of sin when the flesh was weak, but never could she shame herself by admitting by word that such sinfulness could be condoned by being acknowledged to its partner. Furthermore, though her normal workaday self retained its maternal affection and solicitous respect for Edward, this secret, terrifying self of hers harboured increasingly a vague hostility to its bedmate, a resentment verging in her blacker moments of reaction almost on hatred and compounded of a shrinking from a contact which, even when it roused her to response, could seldom sweep her onward to satisfaction, commingled with a morbid horror of the tempter who could lure her wanton body into the paths of sin.
And Elizabeth's similar discovery, accompanied by a shockingly immodest discontent that Ann hadn't prepared her for it:
Richard's delicacy had been rewarded. Sex had come to her as a miraculous discovery, and she had thrilled to the attainment of heights of emotional intensity and nervous ecstasy unsuspected hitherto. Her outlook was free of the taint of prudery and unsullied by the sniggers of pubescent ignorance, and in her tranquil daydreams she had been aware of a feeling of puzzled protest against what seemed to have been a conspiracy of silence. She had come to the opinion that it would have been better had she known a little about it. She dimly realized Richard's forbearance and knew that had she known only a little of what her own body was capable, she might have been a less difficult bride. Ann's surprising recoil of shock was the first suggestion she received that people might consider wicked what she had discovered was an enchanting, experience. She did not mean to be condemnatory. She merely sought an explanation for the failure to enlighten her beforehand. She thought about so important an experience she should have been warned.
Here's the status quo of the Wainwright family, into which Elizabeth marries:
The women opened bazaars, visited surrounding country houses, held afternoon 'At homes' and were pillars of the church. The men had their professions and Richard had his business. The men had also, be it added, their hours of privacy, never questioned by their womenfolk, when they moved in spheres remote from the ken of well-bred ladies and when they indulged in the more refined vices of the town. But always in a gentlemanly fashion; and only in sufficient degree to gratify the robust desires of manhood and never, of course, in such a manner that the ears of their women could catch any distasteful echoes. The Wainwright women of the thirties and forties were hardly supposed to be able to understand the words which described the various shades and meanings of immorality, and the men knew what circumspection befitted the dignity and respect of their family status.
And here's the rather wonderful Lil—how often have you seen, in this time period, a woman taking this sort of pleasure in a man's body, as opposed to the other way around?:
She rested her hands on his hips and stood a moment looking at him. His body was so beautiful it was pure delight only to gaze at him. Necessity had forced her into contact with so many that were the reverse of enchanting that it was sheer joy to her that her lover should be perfect.
'You are so beautiful. See! Your hips, your thighs, your chest, your arms. I love every bit of you.'
She touched, with a slow, caressing movement, each part of him as she spoke, then ran her hands slowly up his body and over his breasts till they linked round his throat, when she reached and gave him a last kiss.
Here are complex, conflicted, passionate women who could walk right off the page, as opposed to the male fantasies of women usually portrayed in "racy" fiction.
So, am I still ready to seek out Watson's other four novels? I think I can leave Fell Top alone for the time being, and as I've never been able to find out anything about her third novel, Upyonder, I'm not actively pursuing it either. But I think, when I finally get round to a new Hopeless Wish List (I'm working on it—really I am) I'll have to leave the other two in place. The Guardian called Hop Step and Jump, published in 1939, the same year as Miss Pettigrew:
another variant on the Cinderella theme, in which a young, working-class woman abandons her husband, becomes a kept woman to better herself, and finally marries a lower-middle-class man, the upper-middle-class ex-lover having, meanwhile, arranged her divorce and taken on the ex-husband as a chauffeur.
Hmmm. I think I'm game. And although it could be a delight or a trainwreck, I'm definitely game for Watson's final novel, Leave and Bequeath (1943) which, the Guardian said, "marked another change of direction, being part murder-mystery and part psychological study." If it's set at the time it was published, it's practically worth a trip to the British Library...
Persephone's bio of Watson mentions that she "stopped writing not long after the birth of her son in 1941." Her Guardian obit provides additional detail:
But then disaster stuck. By now happily married, and with a small son, Keith, Winifred was bombed out of her home, and had to move into cramped conditions in her mother-in-law's house, where she found it impossible to write. "One cannot write," she said to me, "if one is never alone."
What other treasures might we have had if child-rearing and war hadn't got in Watson's way?
Thanks so much to Kelsey for sharing this fascinating book with me!