Friday, February 15, 2019

Guilty pleasures?: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, The Second Wife (1957) & Change of Air (1952)

As a general rule, I'm opposed to the very concept of guilty pleasures when it comes to choice of reading materials. It always seems to me like a way of being a bit pompous and judgmental about an author or genre, even in the guise of making a down-to-earth confession. If you say that murder mysteries or girl's school stories are your "guilty pleasures", it's really a way of assuring your listeners, in a rather Lady Boxe style (see below for why Lady Boxe has leapt to mind), that of course those books are quite beneath one, but one does enjoy slumming it among the philistines every now and then, doesn't one?

Pshaw, I say. Pshaw!

This is particularly on my mind because Gwenllian Meyrick's novels are precisely the type of books people might call guilty pleasures (though I assure you I feel not a qualm about devouring them like candy). If I had to compare Meyrick to a better-known author, it would have to be Dorothy Whipple, who has undoubtedly been called a guilty pleasure now and then as well, and who similarly focuses on domestic drama and soap-opera-ish plots (in the best possible sense of the word). Whipple's characters are probably more thoroughly developed, and her emotional depth is perhaps greater. And yet Meyrick seems to me just as readable. Perhaps she's Whipple Lite, if one could imagine such a thing. Or perhaps she's the sort of author Whipple herself would have read during a seaside holiday (and felt guilty about it?).

More importantly, though, Meyrick's characters and plots seem to tend to be just a bit skewed, a bit surprising, compared to most cozy middlebrow fiction. Both The Second Wife and Change of Air have what might be described as unhappy endings for their most important female characters (not really a spoiler, as these outcomes are foreshadowed from early in each novel), and yet Meyrick manages to shed a different light on them and presents those endings as more or less happy after all. In the first, a delightfully independent, unconventional woman discovers there's more to life than romance, and in the other, a young girl is heartbroken but undoubtedly the wiser and more mature for the experience.

In The Second Wife, the main character is Louise Merton, the middle-aged neighbor who over several years has become a dear friend to the Howard family next door. She's had a rich and varied life, but her cheerful spinsterhood is called into question when Mary Howard is killed in a car accident. In the aftermath, Louise accompanies the family on a planned trip to Austria in Mary's place, to fill the gap for the Howard children—Nicholas, just finishing his National Service, Kay, just out of school, and Robin, who's still at boarding school—only to find herself falling in love with the widowed Inglis. She's heartbroken when he instead proposes to Christina, a much younger woman (of course) they meet while traveling. But if that plot development sounds a bit like a chapter from a romance novel (and it does occasionally read a bit like that—"But why, Louise wanted to cry, must you talk to me about Christina? Haven't you guessed that I love you? What about your old boast that you always knew what I was thinking?"), where Meyrick takes it is distinctly not, for ultimately Louise, no longer under the influence of love's madness, realizes again how content she is on her own. (And the reader, confronted with Inglis's obliviousness and his foolish attempts to regain his youth, is likely to feel that Louise has dodged a bullet.)

It's really the story of a mature, smart, capable woman whose solitary contentment is threatened by love—and how often do we get a story like that? Even more impressively, although Christina is certainly not likeable at first, and Inglis in mid-life crisis mode is merely ridiculous, Meyrick makes them both completely believable, and Christina grows and evolves in interesting ways, so that one can almost believe, by the end, that she and Inglis will have their own happy ending after all—aided, even, by Louise.

The Louise we get at the end of The Second Wife would, by the way, be more or less my first choice for a next door neighbor/friend. It's hard to resist her annoyance with clothes shopping, for example:

In the meantime, she did some shopping for the holiday. She could not bear buying new clothes. She was always suspicious of the young women who would put the dresses over her head, or leave her alone in the cubicle, feeling defenceless and humiliated in her petticoat, while they fetched more. When they assured her something suited her, she distrusted them: when they were indifferent and expressed no opinion, they gave her an inferiority complex. She knew she was difficult to please: flat-chested and flat-hipped, all the pretty modern dresses hung on her as if they were slung over a kitchen airer. Buying clothes was indeed a depressing business.

But happily, once all that love business begins to run its course, we get a glimpse of her back in her element, happily indifferent to the latest fashions:

When she came back, it was March. The dark skies had lifted, spring winds were blowing, and everything had started to grow. Some women hurry to buy a new hat when spring comes: Louise ordered a load of manure for her roses, and awaited its arrival with exactly the same pleasure. It was a little early to prune and manure her roses, but she decided to do it one blowy, bright week-end.

While The Second Wife revels unapologetically in its soap opera qualities, Change of Air, an earlier novel and only the second Meyrick published, is slightly more uneven at times. It perhaps can't quite make up its mind if it wants to be a cheerful holiday comedy or a romantic melodrama. And yet I found it just as compulsively readable because here too Meyrick excels at creating entirely believable, intelligent characters and placing them in realistic but intriguing situations.

Here, the focus is on Joanna Maitland, the sheltered and complacent daughter of a rich businessman:

She was a tall, handsome girl with that look of unimaginative wholesomeness that English boarding-schools often give to girls. She had a bright colour and an expression of health and unbounded self-confidence.

This was hardly surprising, for Joanna was the only child of a rich father, who had conferred upon her not only the benefits of material comforts but also a pleasing belief in herself as a person of some importance.

In the course of a summer spent by the sea on the South Coast, however, with her parents, family friends Elizabeth and James Conway, their children, James's charming writer brother Edmund, and, unexpectedly, her much-admired former English mistress, Sylvia Fanshawe, Joanna's immature complacency is brought crashing down. Love has a way of doing that in Meyrick's novels—even hopeless loves like Joanna's for Edmund, who very soon only has eyes for Sylvia.

There is certainly more comedy in Change of Air than in The Second Wife. Despite her apparent devotion to Joanna's impossible father Herbert, her mother Emma is difficult not to like, particular in this marvelous scene in which she and Elizabeth reminisce about their girlhood:

Emma put down her knitting and suddenly started to laugh.

''Elizabeth, do you remember when you took an egg to the Robinsons' dance and brought it back unbroken? It was in your coat pocket all the time. In those days we never had evening cloaks or fur coats, did we, and always went off to dances with our outdoor coats over our evening dresses."

She paused to take off her sun-glasses, and Elizabeth went on:

"I'd been feeding the hens for mother that afternoon, and as there was an egg in the nest, I popped it into my coat pocket and forgot all about it. After the dance, some young man drove us home in his car—he was rather solemn and inclined to be sentimental about me—"

"I was sitting behind," said Emma, "and I saw him lean lovingly towards you and you put your hand in your pocket, exclaimed, 'Look what I've done!' and produced the egg!"

"And you piped up from the back seat, 'Now we can have scrambled eggs when we get home!'"

"Did we?"

"Oh, yes, with the help of another couple of eggs. But the young man wouldn't stay: he dropped us at our front door, gave us a frightened look, and was off."

This scene is both amusing and a bit poignant, as it makes one feel how much Emma's natural cheerfulness and humour has likely been stifled by her marriage to Herbert. (On the other hand, she seems to genuinely love her selfish, touchy spouse, so clearly there's no accounting for tastes.)

And indeed, all of the women in this novel are quite vivid. Even Mrs Sharp, the landlady of the family's holiday home is entertaining in her sharp dislike for the Y chromosome:

"Don't you like men, Mrs. Sharp?"

"Well, Miss, the only time I can really do with them is when they're miserable or ill. When I see a man grieving or in pain, well, I feel he's just like a child that wants comfort, and I'll do anything for him. If we could only keep all the men miserable or ill, Miss, needing us to look after them, we'd get along quite nicely. But they don't stay ill or sad, they get uppish, Miss, and upset everything with their noisy, silly ways."

With that attitude, it's inevitable that Mrs Sharp is a comfort to Joanna in her hour of heartbreak.

By comparison, Meyrick's men tend to play supporting roles. Though James is rather funny, it's not entirely apparent why Edmund should have captured Joanna's devotion, and Herbert, well, Herbert could be a psychoanalytic case history in himself:

As a boy, he had made up his mind that the way to have power over people was to be rich; with single-minded determination, he had worked to get rich, and he had succeeded; he had become the richest member of his family—it pleased him to be able to send a cheque from time to time to a needy brother or sister who had mocked him in nursery days. In middle age, when he had become prosperous, he had married a docile and admiring schoolgirl, and their daughter gave him the utmost pride and pleasure. But, even so, he was always finding people who could be quite poor and unimportant, yet have fun in front of his very nose without any help from him. It was very irritating.

And before I forget:

"Let's sit in my car," said Mrs. Fanshawe. "We can see Meg just as well from there."

"Oh, grand," said James, "but our shoes are a bit dirty."

"'Get in, get in, never mind muddy boots,'" answered Mrs. Fanshawe, showing that she very properly knew her 'Diary of a Provincial Lady'.

Mrs. Fanshawe, James and Edmund were unanimous in their opinion of the horribleness of Lady Boxe, while Joanna remained grandly aloof.

How could I not be quite enamored of an author who assumes her readers will have read E. M. Delafield?!

It was fun to see, and I'm sharing them in several of the images in this post, a number of critical blurbs about Meyrick's other books, showing how they were received by some critics (admittedly, the higher brow critics seem to be missing, and perhaps never reviewed these books at all). I'm not completely certain of the comparison to Oscar Wilde, but who knows? I haven't read Meyrick's first novel yet, the one referred to in that blurb, so perhaps I have a pleasant surprise ahead of me! 

Meyrick is certainly not a profound literary author. Indeed, she's not even the most polished of cozy middlebrow writers. But I have found her to be great fun in all three of the novels I've read so far. Alas, there are only six in all, but I've already taken appropriate steps to acquire, by hook or by crook, the other three, so you'll certainly hear more about her.

I plan to save my next Meyrick novel for a quiet, lazy weekend, when I can lose myself for hours in her quiet, intelligent domestic world—without the slightest shiver of guilt.


  1. I'm always attracted by writers with Welsh connections so of course would want to read a writer named after Llywelyn the Last Prince of Wales's daughter. There must be a Welsh connection somewhere. And The Second Wife must be my next read - Louise is just the sort of woman I aspire to becoming.... a load of manure instead of a silly hat - perfect! Thank you for another most enjoyable review!

    1. Thanks Ann! You're right, we could all do worse than to model ourselves after Louise. And yes, I might have to look into Meyrick's life a bit more--we have that she was born in Norwich, so her Welsh connection may be further back...

  2. You are right! From now on I will never refer to "Dancing with the Stars" as a guilty pleasure, although those various shows about the "Little Women," may be. Never novels, though! Tom


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