love/hate relationship with Edith Templeton is continuing to evolve. First, I
read her debut novel Summer in the
Country (1950), discussed here, and absolutely loved it. Beyond love, really, I think it's a masterpiece. Then, I jumped to her quite (deservedly) forgotten fourth novel, This Charming Pastime, discussed here, and frankly rather
with her second novel, Living on
Yesterday, I am firmly back in the love camp. From the quite rustic Czech countryside
of Summer in the Country, we arrive
in this novel in the glittering world of Prague society, undoubtedly led (at
least in her own mind) by the imposing and dominating Baroness Kreslov, whose quiet,
awkward daughter Hedwig is but a pawn in the Baroness' attempts to marry her
off to the penniless but prestigious Hungarian Count Szalay, who has arrived in
Prague after an astonishing series adventures (at least, according to him), having
been thought dead along with the rest of his family following political unrest
in Hungary. Fortunately for Hedwig, however (and for us, the readers), Hedwig
has learned considerably more from her mother's machinations than her passive
demeanor reveals, and she sets in motion her own strategy to get exactly what she wants while apparently fulfilling
the fondest wishes of the Baroness.
featuring prominently in the plot is the Baroness' brother Richard Marek, a
widower with whom she has had a troubled relationship (to say the least—he occasionally
manufactures mad tantrums to avoid seeing her) since he married, in her view,
beneath him, and his friend Steffanie Smejkal, a former Court beauty who holds
a sort of salon to which the returned-to-life Count Szalay makes himself known.
This is not to mention some of the staff of these grand houses, who view their
employers with considerable irony.
are lots of lovely little tidbits here. I love this brief exchange between
Richard and Steffanie:
'But what does he look like?' asked
Richard Marek and helped himself to bread and butter and cherry jam.
Steffanie Smejkal put her cup down and
made a vague gesture. 'He looks like a man,' she said. 'And because he looks
like one, he thinks he is one.'
there's Richard's views on women:
'But I often wished women were more
like horses—you see your horse when you want to see it, and then you shut it up
in the stable when you've had enough of it. You don't trail it with you, round
to parties and all day long, if you see what I mean.'
my favorite element are the subtle seethings that one could often miss if one
didn't read carefully, as in this exchange between Hedwig and her mother:
'Well, we shan't put the world to
rights. Not this evening, in any case. I am going upstairs now. I want to have
a last look at the Stock Exchange bulletin.'
Hedwig got up as well. 'I am sorry,
Mama,' she murmured and gave her mother a sidelong glance of hatred. The
Baroness looked fondly into her face and kissed her on the forehead.
it all sounds very much like an English society novel, spiked with breathtaking
humor, spite, and dark motives, it's because it almost might be. If Muriel
Spark or Barbara Pym had possessed a rather fiery Czech background, one might
imagine them writing something like this. But even that doesn't quite capture
the joyful and occasionally horrifying oddness here. There's a wonderful atmosphere and mood, with lots of brooding and
plotting under the surface and few characters being exactly what they seem. And
Hedwig's final victory was a delight, particularly as she is the only character
here who might come within shouting distance of being "likable".
yes, Living on Yesterday can
definitely be a mark in the Love column of my relations with Edith Templeton.
But what about her third novel, The
Island of Desire (1952), to which I immediately progressed?
indeed. Well, here we seem to have a potent mix of Love and Hate.
all starts out wonderfully well. This is, like Living on Yesterday, a sort of mother/daughter story, in which the
tempestuous and promiscuous Mrs Kalny, with her long-suffering wealthy husband
and her ongoing series of lovers, provides a powerful image for her naïve, insecure
daughter Franciska to rebel against. When we meet her, Franciska is still at
school, but already being forced into a rivalry with her mother, who has
determined never to grow old and, most importantly, never to lose her
desirability for men. Even the dressmaker treats her as an accessory of her
Franciska would have liked to say
something rude but nothing occurred to her. She left the room. Louise's words always
annoyed her because they brought it home to her again and again that she merely
existed in the maid's eyes as a sort ofliving dummy, created for the purpose of
serving as a foil to her mother.
her effort to rebel, Franciska is led into publishing a poem which reveals the
luxurious conditions at her exclusive school, while the rest of the nation
suffers under postwar austerity. She is expelled and soon after that forms a hasty
marriage with the principal idea of escaping from her mother. But she is
disappointed with love and with sex, particularly after all of the fuss her
mother has always made about it:
It was, she felt, a case similar to the tale about the
Emperor's new clothes: nobody has ever seen them because they do not exist, yet
everyone goes through the motions of feeling their texture and admiring their
cut, for fear of being thought stupid.
only while traveling with her finicky, repressed husband, when she meets an
American man and his lover in a hotel, that she begins to suspect there is more
to it. And this is where what started as another delightful Templeton comedy of
manners started to go a bit awry for me. The portrayal of the passionate Mrs
Kalny is often quite entertaining, and I love some of the pearls of wisdom she
shares with Franciska, such as:
'She is quite wrong, you know, about
what she said about men, that it's easy to imagine what's coming. One can never
tell what a man is like till one has gone to bed with him. One can get a
tremendous surprise sometimes in this way, good or bad. Remember this for life,
later, discovering Franciska reading a salacious novel:
Mrs. Kalny had been very annoyed for a few minutes. 'Really,
Cissy,' she had said, 'that sort of reading is stupid, because it gives you
wrong ideas. You get things like: "and he picked her up in his arms and
carried her to the bed." It's idiotic. In real life you'll damn well have
to walk to the bed yourself.'
She really does have valid points in both instances…
once we shift our focus onto Franciska's sexual awakening, the novel becomes a
bit more uncomfortable. It begins to seem that The Island of Desire is a transitional work for Templeton, from the
joyful dark comedies she began with to the fantasies of sexual subjugation she
wound up with.
the final scene of the novel, in which Franciska's sexuality is apparently
finally awakened with a vengeance when an official on the Orient Express
virtually rapes her in her cabin and she suddenly (touchingly?) recognizes
herself as her mother's daughter after all, is quite troubling in the age of
#MeToo. I don't want to oversimplify the scene—Templeton is a truly literary
author and deserves the benefit of the doubt, and there are undoubtedly
multiple ways of reading and interpreting this scene. In addition, Anita
Brookner, who wrote the intros to the 1980s Hogarth editions of these novels,
clearly felt that Island was
Templeton's best work. So every reader must decide for him- or her-self, as
with any book. I can only say that for me it was quite offputting.
some ways, then, The Island of Desire
sums up my love/hate feelings for Templeton. It's odd that a woman of such
intelligence and talent, so vividly on display in all of these novels, seems to
have spent much of the rest of her life engaged in Fifty Shades of Grey-esque fantasies. More power to her, of
course, she had a right to explore her sexuality as everyone else does, and
there's no reason I should be comfortable with it. But I can't help feeling
that, unlike with many of my favorite authors, I would have had a challenging
time chatting with Edith Templeton over tea!
I do now at last have a copy of her Italian travel book, The Surprise of Cremona, and I am intrigued to see what I'll find
there. Published in 1954, after the first three novels but before the very offputting This Charming Pastime, what type of personality will come through
from her record of her travels in Italy? Despite my ambivalence, my love/hate
impulses will surely drive me to find out.