This is one of those books I spotted and, though I knew nothing of the author, though I could read nothing into the title, I picked it up because it was an original green Virago Modern Classics.
I learned that that Capel Boake was Australian, a poet and the author of four novels, and that this, her first novel, drew on her own experiences as a shop-girl and an officer-worker in Melbourne, in the years leading up to the Great War.
And I learned that the title was taken from a poem:
“Shall we weep for our idols of painted clay,
Salt dews of sorrow the sere blooms wetting?
Gods of the desert of dreadful day,
Give us the gift of a great forgetting.”
Helen Somerset had a lonely childhood, living with her troubled, embittered father, in a suburaban home that was just a little less well kept, just a little less well loved than the houses that stood around it. His actress wife had left him, he dismissed her as ‘painted clay’, he was determined that his daughter would not go the same way; and so he educated her at home, he kept her close, and he let her believe that her mother was dead.
When Helen learned that her mother was alive, that her father took her away from her mother, and did everything in his power to keep them apart, she was devastated. She lost all of the faith that she had in her father, she railed against him; she blamed him, and she blamed her mother for not trying hard enough to keep her. And she realised that she was alone, that she had to work toward getting a job, and becoming independent.
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Helen’s father died. She leant on the family next door, who she knew a little, and grew to love being in a warm family home for the first time. She chose to board with them rather than with her uncle who wanted her and his wife who clearly did not. They drew her into their world; she formed a close bond George, a cousin who was close to the family, she was treated as another sister by two daughters who were close to her in age, and she appreciated the care and concern that Mr and Mrs Hunter gave her.
She realised that her job as a shop-girl would not bring her the independence she craved, and that she and the Hunter girls faced the same limited choices, between marriage and restricted lives spent in shops, offices and boarding houses. But she believed that there was something out there for her. She found a better job in an office, and she moved into a boarding-house.
A new friend drew her into a Bohemian circle of aspiring artists. She was painted, and she was drawn into a relationship with the man who bought her portrait. Helen loved the freedom, the independence, the joy in living, that she found in her new world, but she had a nagging fear that she was becoming ‘painted clay’, just like the mother who had abandoned her.
This is a very readable story, told with wonderful clarity in straightforward sentences, and more than once I put the book down surprised at how much I had read. It walks the line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘interesting’ beautifully.
Helen was a rather prickly character, but I understood why, and I always understood what drove her and why she did the things she did. It was the same with the characters around her. The relationships were very well drawn, especially the relationships between Helen and the different members of all, and I think the finest writing in the book came as the relationship between Helen and the man who bought her picture became strained.
But it was the setting that brought the story to life, and they were so real, so naturally and effortlessly described. Time and place were beautifully realised. The themes, of isolation, of restricted lives, were threaded through the story just as naturally.
I was only disappointed that just as I was preparing to describe this book as ‘a simple, quiet story, very well told’ it stumbled into melodrama. Helen recognised her mother’s name on a theatre poster, and though their meeting and their subsequent, difficult relationship rang true, the telling was too fast too overwrought. And then the ending, with the coming of war, came much too quickly.
But I’d still say that this was a very good book, for the picture it paints of a particular place, a particular time, and a particular young woman, as she looks for her path in life and her place in the world.