Saturday, June 29, 2019

'Frightful' women: ELIZABETH COXHEAD, The Figure in the Mist (1955)

It was a pale blue and golden rampart, a wall of peaks springing cleanly out of the satiny blue-grey water. Or, if you liked, a blue silhouette in tissue paper, transparent towards the top and filtered with patches of gold. Great cliffs must hem it in. Grappling-irons would be needed to gain a foothold. For the first time in her nineteen years the child of the Essex flats looked at beauty, and in the screaming of the gulls heard the music of the west.

A young girl discovers the beauties of Scotland and the complexities of grownup social life while serving as a live-in help for a London University professor, his wife, and their young son on summer holiday in Arran. Along the way, she develops an affinity for rock climbing and meets a chatty young man.

Surely this is a Mabel Esther Allan novel? Or a charming, cozy romance?

Well, certainly The Figure in the Mist has all the elements of a cozy family holiday story, complete with armchair travel and likeable locals. But it's ultimately a bit more complex, and these familiar plot devices are quite nicely interwoven with issues of class, gender, education, selfishness and vulnerability in young and old alike, and helicopter parenting vs freedom and challenge. Not quite the simple resolutions one might expect either.

Coxhead's heroine here is the appropriately named Agnes Flint, who during this Scotch summer must begin to learn to be a bit less hard and to forgive her fellow beings' shortcomings. She has grown up in a rather dreary middle class suburb, a tough, smart, no-nonsense kind of girl. Her first sight of Arran from the boat, quoted above, makes clear that Scotland will have an impact on Agnes, but she'll learn even more from her interactions with charming Matthew Ogilvy and his insecure wife Margaret, their overprotected, neurotic, but lovable toddler son Adam, Mrs Gillies the manager of the local hotel and an old school friend of Margaret's, and Patrick Hadley, a student of Matthew's who visits for a week. She even gains a bit of self-knowledge from the rock-climbing Matthew teaches her (Coxhead was herself a climbing aficionado and made it central to another of her novels, 1951's One Green Bottle, now added to my TBR list) and the "figure in the mist" she encounters during a climb…

Elizabeth Coxhead mid-climb

Professor Ogilvy is kind to Agnes and helps her with her difficulties, though he's also undoubtedly rather selfish and loves the attention he gets from her—as well as, apparently, many of his female students. Adam is a delight for Agnes (whom he calls "Angus") from day one. But Margaret is distinctly prickly, and the challenging relations between Agnes and Margaret are the real centerpiece of the novel—even when Margaret disappears for two pivotal weeks to visit her ailing father. And Coxhead handles Margaret with rather wonderful compassion—even if we don't quite come to love her, we certainly come to understand her foibles. Soon after Agnes's arrival, she is confused by how kindly Mrs Gillies responds to her initial complaints about Margaret—"She wanted a reassurance that Margaret would be kind to her, while Mrs. Gillies—was it possible?—was asking her to be kind to Margaret."

After Margaret has urged Agnes to get a shorter haircut because it will be flattering to her face, and then been overheard gloating behind her back to Matthew ("Touching, isn't it? The sincerest form of flattery. Just about as close as she could come to a faithful imitation of mine."), Mrs Gillies is unsurprised:

"It's certainly no news to me," said Mrs. Gillies, tranquilly resuming her knitting, "that poor Margaret is a fool. She was aye a fool—that's why I'm sorry for her.

And of course, after Margaret leaves for two weeks and Adam blooms without her neurotic hovering, more serious tensions arise upon her return.

Although rock climbing isn't the main subject of the novel (those uninterested in climbing will be more than compensated by the scenery described in the main climbing scene), there is one climb that forms the centerpiece, and something of a turning point, in the novel. It made me want to be out there scaling some heights myself (particularly in Scotland), though I have an anxious suspicion that I'd be like the one inevitable girl in every school story who manages to twist her ankle and spoil everyone's fun. And although Agnes is a complicated character, it's hard not to love her—and Coxhead—for the scene in which the blunt Agnes firmly tells off the self-absorbed and talkative Patrick. It's long, but I can't resist quoting it:

" ... but you do agree, don't you, that it was pretty discouraging? I mean, you'd have done the same in my place?"

He had stopped in his tracks and was demanding an answer, demanding her interest, her precious attention, so that she was forced to bring it back from the sea and sky. "I'm sorry, Patrick," she said. "I'm afraid I wasn't really listening. Tell me again."

He stared at her, his mouth open; it took him quite five seconds to grasp that she had not been listening. "Well, I must say, I think you're damn' rude."

"Do you? " said Agnes, her control snapping. "Well, if we're going in for home truths, I'd better tell you that I think you're damn' boring."

"Look here—"

"Why, just tell me why, should I be interested in your essays? Why should I care what you do or don't say to your tutor? Why do I have to spend my free afternoon on a re-hash of your academic career? What would you say if I started reeling off my essays? Would you find them interesting? Or is there to be one standard of entertainment for you and another for me, just because you happen to be a man and I a girl?"

It was really funny, seeing him goggle there, his frank blue eyes cloudy with bewilderment, the colour coming up into his handsome face. At length he said:

"I think you're frightful."

"Oh, splendid."

"I never in my life met a woman as frightful as you are." He sought for words which should express it more clearly. "You're the most frightful woman I've ever met."

"All right, it's penetrated."

"And you can damn' well finish your precious afternoon by yourself." And round he turned, shuddering with outrage, and striding back by the way they had  come, was soon out of her sight.

Oh, the relief at being rid of him! She felt no more compunction than if she had brushed off a persistent fly.

Oh dear. Rather harsh, indeed, but how many times have we all wanted to say something similar to some clinging bore?! But Coxhead lends the scene greater depth when, a few pages later, Matthew teases out a bit more compassion from Agnes—compassion that will undoubtedly be needed in dealing with Margaret later—and I related even more to her:

"I didn't realise till I'd done it just how young he is. It was as if I'd hit Adam. He just stood there saying 'You are a frightful woman,' over and over. He hadn't even words to curse me with."

"Poor young ass. I like to think Adam would have stood up for himself more efficiently. Perhaps next time callow youth annoys you, you'll make the necessary allowances."

"I'll try." She sighed. "But you know, one's always being told to make the necessary allowances for children and the aged. It's a bit hard if one has to make them for one's contemporaries also. Is nobody ever to be treated as an equal?"

"You will be safe to make allowances for everybody always." He gave her a sideways grin. "Bit of a tough nut, aren't you, Agnes? I mean it as a compliment, I rather like tough nuts, in fact I'm a bit of one myself. But we ought to pay for our privilege by modifying our toughness for the weaker brethren."

The wrapping-up of the relationship between Agnes and Margaret, which is also the conclusion of the novel, is handled in a similar way. Agnes is young and rash, a bit impatient and intolerant, but she also grows as a character and returns to her home and school as a more mature, complex young woman.

I first read Elizabeth Coxhead way back in 2015, and reviewed her 1952 novel A Play Toward here. I was a bit ambivalent about that one, though in light of my enjoyment of The Figure in the Mist I'm wondering if a re-read could be in order? First, though, I think I'm going to need to get hold of One Green Bottle—first, because I want to figure out what the deal is with that title, and second, because the dustjacket for A Play Toward contains an enthusiastic blurb about Bottle from no lesser critic than Marghanita Laski.


  1. I read One Green Bottle many, many years ago...and loved it. It has stuck in my mind...

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Elizabeth! Happily, I now have a copy of the book, so it's just a matter of keeping it near the top of my TBR list...


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