|This Art Deco figure by Demetre Chiparus|
captures the feel of the book as Nigel and
Caroline seek love.
Not knowing anything about Violet Trefusis, beyond the brief fact that she eloped with Vita Sackville-West and was the daughter of Alice Keppel (favourite mistress of King Edward VII) I had no idea what to expect from her 1937 novel Hunt the Slipper, especially as her work seems to have been overshadowed by other members of the Bloomsbury set - I don’t know if she’s actually considered to be part of the group or not, but she certainly moved in their circle, and it’s interesting to see read her work in this context. She wasn’t an innovative writer, like Virginia Woolf – this a bright, witty, satiric comedy of manners (actually, I think romantic comedy may be nearer the mark) which is, nevertheless, something of a tragedy, and I loved it.
According to the blurb on the back of my Virago 1983 edition, it’s a ‘she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not story’, where love is like ‘the treasure hunt of childhood, with the longed-for object of pursuit forever tantalising, forever just beyond reach’. And, just for once, the description is spot on. Nigel Benson is 49, wealthy, cultured, rather plump, attracted by women – and attractive to them. Over the years he’s had a succession of love affairs, but the one constant in his life is his sister Molly, who seems to have sublimated her own desires in caring for him, and persists in treating him as if he were still a small, enchantingly naughty, small boy.
His life is untroubled, filled with pleasure: he doesn’t have to work (all the central characters seem to have unearned incomes) so can indulge his passion for paintings and objets d’art, and spend months abroad in France and Italy. But everything changes when he meets Caroline, the wife of his neighbour Sir Antony Crome. Initially there is no spark between them, then they meet again in France: Caroline, young and lonely, on the rebound from a failed love affair, is ill in bed, and Nigel is on hand to provide solace and entertainment…
The pair fall in love, but Caroline seems curiously heartless in her dealings with him, just as she is with her husband and small daughter. When they are apart he suffers pangs of jealousies, and fears she does not love him at all. Restless, distracted, unable to settle, he loses weight, and recaptures the appearance of his youthful self. But when they are together he is just as tortured by his feelings, and by the strain of keeping up with a woman who is half his age. He’s infatuated with her to the point of obsession, but he knows that eventually she will abandon him for someone new.
Caroline herself remains a bit of a mystery. When we first meet her she is rather dull, insipid almost, awkward, and not outstandingly pretty. However, she changes during her affair with Melo the Chilean, and turns out to be fascinating, attractive and witty – but she’s cruel and self-centred. Did she become like this as a result of that first affair I wonder? Or did that bring out some latent quality within her? And does she love Nigel? Indeed, is she capable of love at all? Does she even think she is in love, or does she just like being adored? According to Molly:
Caroline is a one-man’s job. She would like to be made to darn socks, to be ordered about, and to live in a two-roomed cottage like a woman in a Lawrence novel. Unfortunately for her, Fate has ordained otherwise. She’ll always be attracted by anyone who is the antithesis of Anthony – and Crichley.
This ties in with Caroline’s own comments about herself and, as if to prove the theory, she finally runs off with a man who thinks Picasso is a Mediterranean fishing-village… but even then there’s a twist to tale, as Nigel discovers when he reads her farewell letter, for it’s all a ploy to get him to go off with her. But it is too late, because he has waited too long to open the letter. And, ironically, he finds himself supporting the devastated Anthony, the husband he has wronged.
Oddly, Nigel has more in common with Anthony than he does with Caroline. The two men, as she herself observes, are both collectors, and I think they both see her as a trophy to be acquired. Neither tries to view her as a person in her own right. Nigel appears very emotional, and Anthony is passionless. Trefusis had a field day describing him:
…his mind was beautifully laid out, like a garden a la française, geometrical, disciplined, gracious. It was full of amiable diversions; one forgot it was based upon an inflexible plan, and that, like the gardens of Versailles, its construction had necessitated the laying waste of innumerable acres. It was perpetually ‘on show’. It is to Anthony’s credit that the public seldom realised that it had paid for admission.
I was surprised at the role houses play, and the way each has a clearly defined character of its own, and how that character reflects is owners. Anthony’s home, Crichley, is filled with rare, valuable objects, and is well ordered, but it’s a chilly place, cheerless, comfortless and sterile. Even the food is boring and tasteless.
On the other hand, Caroline’s family home, Random, is as disorganised as the name suggests. Here, according to Nigel, ‘teacups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks’ feathers and leopard-skins’. It’s chaotic and untidy, with no routine, and even the food is peculiar, with strange, unpalatable ingredients.
The one perfect home is Ambush, where Nigel and his sister live in surroundings which are comfortable and luxurious, but not ostentatious, and where the food is exquisitely cooked and tastes superb.
Trefusis wrote about milieu she knew, and she did it superbly well, and from a position of
privilege and wealth she is able to poke fun at the English aristocracy and
the upper classes. It’s written in the 1930s, but there’s no mention of the
political situation in Europe during this period, although much of the novel is
set on the Continent, and somehow I get the impression it is set a decade
earlier, before Trefusis left England to live in France.
|Violet Trefusis pictured in 1920.|
And, despite the lightness of tone, and the humour, and the satire, I still keep thinking of this as a tragedy, and for some reason eternal triangles keep running through my mind, and the story of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, which is odd, because if I was asked to think of a literary parallel for Caroline I would have said she was more like Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina, bored by her marriage to a dull man, seeking love and excitement based on ideas gleaned from stories.