So -- I went to Guernsey for the day last week -- it's a beautiful little island, and not that hard to reach from St Malo, near where I live. I'd never been to any of the Channel Islands before and was completely won over by the amazing mixture of French and English culture there -- most of the street and house names are French and so are many of the surnames of the inhabitants, but the language is English (though a few people -- about 2 per cent -- still remember the old language of the islands, Guernesiais). The shops, though, are English, and thus it was that I was able to go to an Oxfam shop and root through the books, a rare treat for me these days. In fact I only bought two, and now I wish I'd got a few more, but this was one of them and it's been a great pleasure to read it.
Published in 1972, this is the story of Anne and Edmund Cornhill. They have been married for ten years, and are idyllically happy. Their house on the river near London is beautiful and full of lovely things. Every morning -- after a night of delicious eroticism, equally satisfying for them both -- Edmund makes Anne breakfast in bed and goes to his work as an estate agent in the city, while Anne stays at home cooking delightful dinners ready for his return home. Utterly absorbed in each other, they are slightly put out to receive a call from Edmund's esrtwhile stepmother Clara to say that her daughter Arabella (no relation to Edmund -- her father being a different one of Clara's many husbands) will be coming to stay for a few days. But they are good, polite people, and make everything ready to receive this girl who neither of them has ever met.
And enter Arabella. Edmund goes to meet her at the station, and finds her, a tall fair girl with spindly legs, who looked half asleep. Arabella is not feeling very well -- she's just had an abortion in London, after a most unsatisfactory affair with an out-of-work actor. In fact she has never had an affair that was not unsatisfactory and this is hardly surprising given her upbringing, which is soon revealed to Edmund and Anne. Dragged around Europe by her mother, molested by the succession of ageing and unpleasant men to whom her mother has been briefly married, given as much money as she wants but no love at all, apart from that of her old Scottish nanny, long dead. The other thing that is soon revealed to Edmund and Anne is that Arabella is not only extremely beautiful -- she looks like a Botticelli painting -- but has an extraordinarily sweet and helpful nature. Soon she is helping Anne, to the best of her untrained ability, with the house and garden, and enjoying quiet evenings listening to records. Then she goes to London for the day, and ends up having lunch with Edmund. Afterwards he has to visit a large empty country house, takes her with him, and finds himself making love to her beside the lake. Never having in his life done anything like this before, he is immediately completely besotted. Not so Arabella, for whom it's just another episode. Soon afterwards, Edmund is sent to Greece on business, Anne develops glandular fever, and Arabella becomes first her nurse and soon her lover. All three secretly fantasise about a perfect future, but when Edmund comes back and the truth comes out, everything has to change.
This is a truly delicate and perceptive novel. I was quite often reminded of Elizabeth Taylor, whose novel The Wedding Group Anne is reading in the garden when Arabella arrives. Yes, the subject is essentially serious, but there is wry wit here too, usually at the expense of the married couple, so sure of their eternal, unchanging love, so easily overthrown by unexpected experience. Edmund in particular easily slips into the thought processes of every cliche about the menage a trois that every menage a trois has been through:
the caring about the third person, the anxiety for them, the private unspoken determination to do what they wanted to do while of course wishing very much not to hurt them: the mounting amazement that the third person did not see what was so patently and violently felt: the conclusion that they were of different clay, the snatched moments of lust that simply could not be foregone: the guilt that they had occurred, the resentment that they had to be snatched, the paralysis of being driven into a situation where there was no going back and no way out except through action - violence and guilt, and decision of one awful kind or another...
Although each of the three people here is beautifully observed, it is Arabella who is perhaps the most interesting character. She is full of love, though entirely unable to know exactly where to direct it or how to express it. Bullied all her life by her mother, kept in ignorance of her own financial status, she longs for freedom but has no idea how to gain it. However, although the blurb on the back of my Penguin edition says 'it is Arabella who finally loses out', I totally disagree. I can't say more because you might want to read this and I don't want to spoil it for you. But I will say that I felt very hopeful for her future, more so than for either Anne or Edmund, whose options seemed limited. In the end, though, this is essentially a novel about love and about sexuality and about how hard it is to distinguish between them, and very thought-provoking it is too.
Have you ever read Elizabeth Jane Howard? I've read a few of her novels, some years ago now, and I think I'd better see if I can get any more. Excellent stuff -- highly recommended.