I wrote recently about my re-reading of Edith Templeton's marvelous, glorious debut novel, Summer in the Country (1950), which I absolutely loved (see here). I also described the somewhat unusual trajectory of her career, and mentioned that I had just started to read this, her fourth novel, and the only one of her four novels from the 1950s that wasn't reprinted by Hogarth in the 1980s. I said then that I was already beginning to sense why, and now I know beyond any doubt.
What a contrast! Summer in the Country is an absolute feast of vivid characters and original perspectives, combining English-style comedy and extravagantly dark Bohemian drama into a brilliantly unique delicacy.
This Charming Pastime is not.
The plot here begins with Helen and Ann, two thirty-ish friends traveling in Italy, Ann because she has accepted a job there, Helen to help Ann get settled in and to do some traveling herself. At first, it's charming enough. Ann is the more uptight and traditional, Helen a bit more adventurous. A darker tone is introduced when it emerges that the latter's husband has committed suicide a year or two before, and the trip is perhaps a sort of opening out for her, an embracing of life again. Clearly, right from the beginning she sees herself becoming a rather shady lady, as when she bemoans her friend's choices of women to socialize with:
It was just like Ann, she thought, to collect any dull and decent women in the place. It had been the same in Verona and Bologna, in Venice and Vicenza, in Perugia and Assisi. Whereas, when she had entered into conversation with strange women during those last six weeks, they had always been, oddly enough, not women of her own age but those overwhelming old ladies of about seventy, raddled and rouged, scented and tight-laced, tinkling with jewellery and haloed by curls, who smoke, drink and gamble till the small hours of the morning and who will tell you between the pear and the coffee why at least three of their marriages went wrong.
I'm certainly with Helen in her choice of amusing company. Then, the women meet Mr Larson, an oil company executive whose company they both clearly enjoy. They also enjoy his wining and dining and the use of his car and driver. Plenty of potential so far, right?
But then, Helen goes off on her own to travel in Sicily, where it so happens that she encounters two of Larson's employees, Oriano and Conti, but not before spending an uncomfortable night learning about the peculiar Sicilian attitudes toward women. As the two men later explain:
"It is like this," he said, "they only know three kinds of women. The first is the married woman or the young girl and she is respected and never allowed out alone. They respect them so much that they don't even look at them when they see them. The second is the prostitute. She, too, is respected because she gives love for money. But the lowest of the low is the woman like you, who is not a prostitute and who travels alone. They think they need not respect you because, if you were decent, you would not travel alone. But, as you travel alone, you will give them your love for nothing."
They go on to explain that the Sicilians also seem to enjoy killing one another, often over matters of love and sex. And if I hadn't already begun to find Helen a bit unbearable by this point, her reaction to this would have clinched the deal:
"Now, perhaps," said Conti, "madame will understand why the Sicilians hurl themselves on any lonely unprotected woman."
"Yes, yes," said Oriano, and he made a movement of disgust.
"In a way I like it," said Helen. "It must be very flattering for a woman to know that she is as precious as all that. And then, if every kiss carries death, surely love becomes more worthwhile."
This combination of masochism and unvarnished narcissism would be a tough sell for me in any supposed protagonist, though perhaps Elizabeth Eliot might have made Helen into one of her hilariously ridiculous heroines. As it is, however, Templeton seems to treat her—and her subsequent ridiculously obsessive affair with the aforementioned Oriano—as if it's completely relatable and, even more unlikely, as if it were remotely interesting. By the time the drab, agonizing plot works itself to its somewhat tragic conclusion, I'm afraid that I was simply happy that it was over.
It's hard to imagine a sort of reader who would really love this book. Those who like romance will be put off by its harshness and hand-wringing, and by the fact that Oriano is a dullard of the first order, and those who just want to be entertained will likely find it all as dull and depressing as I did. Perhaps it might be of interest for one who researches evolving portrayals of female sexuality and liberation as the 20th century progressed, but it can't be said that this is a particularly admirable example of a sexually liberated woman. It's rather as if a Jean Rhys character took a rather tedious holiday in Sicily and became hopelessly and masochistically enamoured of a totally useless, boring man. Now it's not impossible to imagine a Rhys character doing just that, of course, but one imagines Rhys would have found ways to make her story come alive a bit more than Templeton did here.
By the way, the enigmatic title, which certainly doesn't adequately describe the activity of reading the novel, is from a children's song about a rocking horse—going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, oh what a charming pastime—suggesting the play of emotions in the story.
So there, mystery solved. Having always wondered why Hogarth would have published three out of four of Templeton's early novels, I no longer need to wonder. Perhaps Templeton was attempting to distance herself from the Bohemian subject matter of the first three novels? Helen is certainly very clearly identified here as an Englishwoman. While Bohemia seems to have provided Templeton with ample inspiration, however, here that inspiration seems sadly lacking.
Happily, though, this still leaves me with her second and third novels for me to revisit, which I fully expect will be more worthwhile and enjoyable, and her story collection and Italian travel book as well!