One of the reasons I love British authors is that they write about quiet, sensitive, introverted, even passive characters that American authors tend to overlook in their rush for the spunky and headstrong. It’s why I loved Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart (and that title could definitely apply to Jenkins’ novel as well), I felt it was speaking my language and experience, as a shy person who’s often overwhelmed by those with more powerful personalities.
Imogen at the start of the novel is beautiful and married to a husband she more than adores, with a comfortable country home and son. But all is not perfect and from the beginning an undercurrent of dread for her is introduced. We soon see that she has resigned her personality, preferences and self up to her stronger husband Evelyn:
The eager willingness to put herself under Evelyn’s influence made her subordinate many of her tastes to his as well as her opinions. Had her aesthetic sense not been guided by his she would never have used deep strong colours… Her secret preference was for rooms in twilight and for tangled thickets… She had been largely cured under his influence of her readiness to buy an object that was elegant and graceful, however battered or impaired… Their reading was sometimes a source of disharmony. Imogen read so willingly and so much and, where their tastes coincided, pleased him so greatly by her sympathy and intelligence, that it disappointed him when she declared she could not read Conrad or Herman Melville, or the more political of Disraeli’s novels.
She worships her husband’s strength and magnetism, she lives for and under him and she has let her own light go out. She lives to please and serve and soothe him and he sees this as his due, since he is a busy important man while she is only the rich and idle housewife. From the first I wanted her away from him and yet when he begins to fall under the spell of another woman who is better suited to him, I hurt with Imogen as she is trapped slowly but surely, the affection her husband used to show her leaking away. She has tried to be the perfect wife and mother, to selflessly do what her husband and son endlessly expect, yet it seems it’s not enough. Her son resents her, even almost bullies her. And the other woman (who’s name, Blanche Silcox, I came to absolutely loathe) relentlessly, easily gains pride of place with father and son while Imogen weakens, frightened by nightmares and premonitions. At some points I wanted her to scream at them, to fight back and at other times it seemed so sexist, why fight for a man who is happy to have ‘more than one good thing’ in his life?
The sense of grievance would rise in her breast, making her neglect those small opportunities to be magnanimous and endearing. Her mind, once so sensitive and alert to what was likely to please or annoy him, now seemed hardly to function in that direction. She made mistakes in tact and sense that would once have horrified her, and she did not care… She had felt weary and discouraged and unable to respond when he introduced topics that should have interested any rational person: Land Development Charges, Conrad’s novels, the abolition of capital punishment and the pros and cons of bringing the English coinage into line with the Continental system. In face of all her silence, lack of interest and monosyllabic replies, Evelyn maintained a civil, reasonable and fluent conversation. Any stranger who had overheard them would have pitied him.
It was maddening to read and yet so beautifully written. After a Christmas snowfall, “the trees in the hanging woods were like the breasts of swans, the banks under them silent in snow.” Virago Modern Classics seems to re-release slightly more difficult, ambiguous titles like this than Persephone Books does (they famously refused to republish Dorothy Whipple, who’s more homey style now sells very well with Persephone), so it was a challenge for me to finish this, but it’s one I’m glad I did. I need to be remained to shake off my passivity from time to time, to do more than float through life.
“I used to think,” said Imogen, sitting back on her heels, “that a fire was one of the most potent snares for making you lose yourself. The water in the river was another. I seemed to spend so much time being lost, it used to alarm me, almost, how one half of my mind always seemed to be mislaying the other half. Sometimes at the end of the day, if I’d been more or less by myself, I simply couldn’t account for how the time had gone. Have you ever felt like that?”