Tuesday 3 July 2012

A Sparkling Comedy of Manners

The blurb on the back describes Love's Shadow, by Ada Leverson, as 'a wry, sparkling comedy of manners' and, just for once, the blurb is quite right – the novel, a social satire on well-to-do Edwardian life, is light, witty, humorous, and very enjoyable. It's another of those forgotten classics published in The Bloomsbury Group series. As I've said before, I really love these books: they have fabulous, covers featuring a period design, and a wonderful, wonderful Ex Libris page, upon which you can inscribe your name. I am a great fan of Ex Libris stickers – you come across them in old books, and I'm always curious about the owner, and why they chose that particular design, and whether they liked the book. If I could draw, which I can't, I would design my own, in full-blown art noveau style (Mucha or Beardsley I think) as ornate as possible,with books spilling out of a carved, medieval, wooden trunk, and a woman with trailing tresses, reading.

Anyway, as usual I have got sidetracked, so back to the book. I hadn't heard about Ada Leverson until I discovered these Bloomsbury Books, so I Googled her and discovered she was born in 1862 and died in 1933. Her wealthy family opposed her marriage to Ernest Leverson when she was only 19, and the couple eventually split up in 1905, when he moved to Canada. Ada began writing in the 1890s, initially producing articles for publications like Punch and The Yellow Book, before turning her hand to novels. She moved at the centre of a sparkling literary and artistic circle, and her friends included Max Beerbohm, the Sitwells, William Walton, Walter Sickert, Aubrey Beardsley, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Oscar Wilde, who called her 'the wittiest woman in the world'.

The title of Love's Shadow, published in 1908 is, presumably, a reference to some lines from Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', which are printed at the start of the novel, giving us a clue that the theme of the book is about the nature of love, and the way people chase what they cannot have. And even when they gain what they think they want, happiness  may be illusory.
Love like a shadow flies
Where substance love pursues;
Pursuing that which flies,
And flying what pursues.

Here we have disparate couple Edith and Bruce Ottley, who live in a 'very new, very small, very white flat in Knightsbridge – exactly like thousands of other new, small, white flats'. She is young, pretty, bored, and much more intelligent than her husband, a pompous, lazy, stupid hypochondriac, who has an unspecified job in 'the office' but rarely seems to do any work, and is always falling out with his friends, family and colleagues. And he has no sense of humour. And he always blames everyone else for his own shortcomings. And he's vile to Edith, always putting her down. You can tell, I think, that I don't like him. In fact, I would go so far as to say he is a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and how on earth poor Edith ever came to marry such a rude, ignorant lout I cannot imagine. They have a young son, Master Archie, who rarely seems intrude on their sterile white flat, or their sterile white lives, and they are constantly in debt, but nevertheless, manage to employ a nanny and a cook.

Ada Leverson
The one bright spot in Edith's life is her friendship with old schoolfriend Hyacinth Verney, who is rich, beautiful and charismatic. Everyone, it seems, is in love with Hyacinth – apart from man-about-town Cecil Reeve, who is desperate to engage the affections of widowed Eugenia Raymond, an older woman whose interest in him is purely platonic, and who yearns after Hyacinth's guardian Sir Charles Cannon, who is in love with his young ward, and only married  his well-upholstered wife due to a misunderstanding on her part, and he wasn't brave enough to put her right. 

Confused? Well, pay attention, because things get even more complicated. Hyacinth, whose heart has hitherto remained untouched by the attentions of the many young men who adore her, promptly falls head over heels in love with Cecil, largely because she thinks he doesn't like her, which is pretty contrary really. Then there is her companion, AnneYeo, 'who made every effort to look quite forty so as to appear more suitable as a chaperone, but was in reality barely 30'. Anne is a curious character (possibly the most interesting in the book) who is obviously in love with Hyacinth, and goes out of her way to make people dislike her by appearing as peculiar as she can, presenting a kind of mask to the world. She wears odd clothes (favouring a mackintosh, driving-gloves and golf-cap when out walking), and speaks her mind in forthright manner. Hyacinth is either blissfully unaware of Anne's feelings, or wilfully ignoring the situation. And let's not forget Cecil's uncle, Lord Selsey, who takes a close interest in the two women in his nephew's life...

Characters may lack emotional depth, but the story is well paced, the prose is bright and sparkling, and the portrayal of what is considered to be acceptable behaviour is very entertaining - especially when it comes to meetings between a young man and a young woman!  By the end of the novel, relationships are settled to the satisfaction of all, largely through the efforts of poor Anne Yeo (who I think deserves a novel to herself). Whether or not everyone lives happily ever after is another matter entirely, and I suspect the Ottleys continue to torment each other in their restrained, middle-class way. I gather that their story continues in 'Tenterhooks' and 'Love at Second Sight', so I can find out what happens to them, and whether the dreaded Bruce gets his come-uppance, or whether he turns over a new leaf.


  1. I've read a couple of AL's short stories and very funny they are. She was a friend of Oscar Wilde of course and you can see why they liked each other. I've read about this novel before but never got hold of it -- one day I will, no doubt. Thanks.

    1. She sounds quite a character. There is a biography, Wonderful Sphinx, by Julie Speedie, which ~I would like to read.

  2. I didn't realise there was a follow-up - will have to get that! I thought this book was a very amusing comedy of manners.

    1. Apparently the three novels about the Ottleys were published in a combined edition by Virago, as The Little Ottleys, and it might be nice to have all three of together.

  3. You may know this already, but just in case you don't Virago published The Little Ottleys, an omnibus with this book and the two sequels you mention. it's out of print, but it shouldn't be too difficult to track down a copy. I have yet to read mine, but you have definitely inspired me to pull it off the shelf.