off the beaten page: lesser-known British, Irish, & American women writers 1910-1960
Friday, August 27, 2021
Rhapsody in Paris (and Italy): MONICA STIRLING, The Boy in Blue (1955)
"But you're the only
"I'm the only person
just now, yes. That's natural—when one's
in love one loves no one—"
"Who said that?"
"Was he in love with
"Not in the least.
Well, I was just ten the only time he saw me. But he most certainly wouldn't
have been, anyway.
Although Monica Stirling is not, by and large, a hilarious writer, this
humorous snippet of conversation between Laurent, a somewhat socially-stunted
young Frenchman only just beginning to recover from the terrible losses he
suffered during the Nazi occupation, and Marie-Louise, the glamourous,
well-to-do older woman with whom he falls in love for the first time, gives a
hint of the level of sophistication, tinged with both sentimentality and
worldly-wise cynicism, of the universe of Stirling's novels.
Stirling herself seems to have led a wildly varied and sophisticated life.
In her youth, she seems to have worked as an actress (her parents Edward
Stirling and Margaret Vaughn [real name Flora Rose Parsons] were stage and
silent film actors), and traveled extensively. She worked as a journalist, and
was living in Paris in 1940, a regular customer of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare
and Company (see below). She published eight novels and two story collections,
as well as biographies of Ouida, of Napoleon's mother, and of Hans Christian
Some rather impressive critical blurbs for Stirling's work
I first encountered Stirling two or three years ago when I read her 1953
novel Ladies with a Unicorn. I
remember liking it very much, but then (the story of my life) I got sidetracked
onto other things. The Boy in Blue is
my first encounter with her since, but it certainly won't be my last.
Laurent Tenand is twenty-three, a serious composer who has, to his own
dismay, made a small fortune from several pop songs written in collaboration
with a friend. Those profits have allowed him to remain, in adulthood, as
isolated as he has been ever since his entire family was killed in a Nazi
massacre in the French village of St. Roch. Laurent, too, would have been
killed that day had he not chosen to remain at home that day to finish his
homework. Instead, he spent the remainder of the war with an uncle in Paris,
who also took in an elderly Jewish music-teacher who set Laurent off on his
As the novel opens, Laurent is in limbo (at times, he reminded me rather
of a Patrick Modiano protagonist, for those who have read Modiano—and if you haven’t, do), but he is perhaps just
on the brink of rejoining the world around him. He is invited by a friend of
his who works in television to contribute music for a documentary about a
historic house, and goes to see the house for inspiration, in the process
meeting its owner, the lovely, elegant, and oh-so-chic Marie-Louise de
Brévanne. Marie-Louise is considerably Laurent's senior, by nearly two decades,
but Laurent is fascinated and Marie-Louise is flattered and intrigued:
He didn't seem to her to
belong to what she thought of as her world, but nor was there anything she
could trace to another. … A noble savage, in fact, she thought, smiling to
herself because she had never had to do with one before and was devoted to
seems to further awaken Laurent, but their flirtation has only begun when
Marie-Louise sets off for a planned trip to Spain. Left to his own devices,
Laurent, stimulated by his infatuation into seeking rare social interaction at
a Paris bar he had occasionally frequented as a student, meets Mounette, a
young woman who has worked as a model (naturally, men in novels always meet
models, don't they?) but wants to be a photographer. Mounette is charming,
quite different from the superficial Marie-Louise:
Her attitude towards people
had some of the unacquisitive keenness of a bird-watcher's towards birds.
Her charm is
enough to make Laurent speak of his personal tragedy for the first time since
it happened—and enough to make him spend the
night with her (men are pigs, obviously)—but
not enough to dampen his ardour for the teasingly absent Marie-Louise.
It's not necessary to go into detail about the rest of the plot, and I'm
sure most of you won't have a great deal of difficulty guessing more or less how
it plays out. At times, it can read almost like a romance novel, and
contemporary reviews (mostly by men, naturally) tended to dismiss Stirling's work as mostly
glittering but sentimental facade. In the beginning, I wondered if they were
right. Sentimentality there may be, in moderate amounts, but there is surprising substance
too. In much of her work, Stirling concerned herself particularly with trauma
and how it is overcome, making her in some way uniquely worthy of rediscovery
in our age of memoirs of abuse, bad parenting, and loss.
And yet, she's much more entertaining than most such tales, because
she seems to have been determined to combine what at first seem disparate
elements—the traumas of our modern age, in particular the scars of WWII, and the elegance and glamour, the
creative ferment and sense of adventure, of the postwar European scene. Though
I make no bold claim that she shares the brilliance of the New Wave or the New
Novel (just as well, perhaps), she does seem tuned in to the same frequency—the agonies of the recent past transmuted into
new creativity and new ways of wrestling with life. If some middlebrow authors
of the midcentury give one to believe they had no awareness at all of the
experimental rush occurring in the edgier realms of art and literature, Monica
Stirling by contrast seems to be right there in the middle of it, digesting it
and adapting it to her own (admittedly less radical) purposes. Indeed,
Princeton happens to have online Stirling’s Shakespeare and Company library
card from the early 1940s [see here], from which her reading
habits give me an eerie sense ofdéjà vu—Stella Gibbons, Djuna Barnes,
Compton Mackenzie, Elizabeth Bowen, Christopher Isherwood, Ernest Hemingway,
Henry Green, Rosamond Lehmann—if not for the fact that she only died when I was
15, I’d wonder if I could be her reincarnation.
In addition to Modiano here and there, The
Boy in Blue also made me think of Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy or The
Willow Cabin, of Breakfast at
Tiffany's, even here and there of a slightly less jaded Tennessee Williams
(who did certainly love his melodramas about fading beauties and their love
affairs—but I would point out Stirling is
far kinder to her fading beauty than Williams usually was). In fact, The Boy in Blue might have worked just
as well as a play, since it's rather talky as a novel—the
long passage in which Laurent tells
Mounette his story is crucial and gripping, and skillfully done, but not every author would think of putting such drama into a conversation (albeit with some actual flashbacks).
however, I found myself more than a little moved by The Boy in Blue, and fascinated by the combination of glamour and
the pain beneath it that Stirling seems to enjoy stirring up. The theme of love
as a force that can help us heal from our traumas might verge on
sentimentality, but in Stirling’s hands it’s also quite plausible. I'm even beginning to wonder
if Monica Stirling actually is the author I had hoped March Cost might turn out
to be (see here
for what I've written about another "glittering" and
"sophisticated" author). At any rate, you'll certainly hear more
about her here soon, as I'm already on to more of her work.
meantime, though, two more tidbits to help show how entertaining it all is.
Here's a snippet of dialogue intended, I suppose, to show Marie-Louise's
superficiality, but which I have to confess I sometimes relate to:
"Oh dear, oh dear.
Whenever I come up against the fact my life's completely selfish I wish I could—I
don't know—save someone's life without—without—"
being late for lunch?"
Now, let's admit it: to whatever extent we help worthy
causes or work toward change in areas we're passionate about, don't we all also
feel like this sometimes?
Finally, because we've all
been cooped up too much for the past year and a half, I have to mention that a portion of
the novel takes place in Naples, on the Amalfi Coast, and at Pompeii. And to
show you Stirling's gift for scenic description, I'll leave you with a long
passage describing Laurent's first views of Italy from the train:
Clear gold light rose like
water over sharply defined bluish hills. A pair of milk white oxen plodded
towards a tumbledown pink house with bullet-pocked walls and blue shutters.
Alongside the flowering laurels of an otherwise abandoned village square strode
two Carabinieri with cocked hats. A barefoot child in washed-out-blue rags
waved, its fingers outspread like those of the fig trees beside which it stood.
A row of women, their hair tied back by coloured handkerchiefs, knelt on a
river bank and laundered, white sheets taut beside them, a stone at each
corner. Groups of men in dark clothes clustered at the end of an otherwise
empty street in a small town of pale block-like houses. A priest drove by on a
Vespa, his skirts billowing. And then, at last, there was a glimpse of the sea.
There was yellow sand, as he
had hoped there would be, and it was spread with rust-coloured nets and wooden
boats of faded greens and blues. It was bright blue as he'd expected, and there
were palm trees with metallic-looking leaves, pickled by the moist, salty air.
Laurent stared and stared, excitement churning in him. He would have liked to
stop the train and rush to the beach to touch and smell this marine world of
which he'd so often dreamed. Marie-Louise had no part in his emotion, but as
soon as he remembered her he credited her with it, and his longing to reach her
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