Edith Olivier’s first novel, ‘The Love Child’, published in 1927 is a small masterpiece; telling the story of a woman who has led a cloistered life, who reaches for something more, something that maybe she cannot quite reach.
I love it, I know other who love it too, and it is one of those books that I know I would rescue from a burning building or take with me to a sojourn on a desert island.
‘As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s’ was published a year later; it tells a very similar story in a quite different way; it’s as odd and as distinctive as its title, and it’s another story that I want to hold close to my heart.
Objectively it isn’t nearly as good a book as its predecessor; but. subjectively, I did like it.
As a child Jane was expected to be good and quiet, to read and to help with her mother’s needlework; because her mother played the role of an invalid and had her whole household spin around her, even though she had no real infirmity. Jane’s one touch of freedom came on the weekly walk to her grandmother’s with her friend and their nurses:
“Jane’s delight was to linger till the nurses had disappeared round the curve in the road, and then she had her own way of swinging herself up the gate and on to the top of the wall. Taking the handle in her hands, she kicked vigorously, then, with a sudden leap she stuck her feet into the handle, and at the same time threw her hands over the gate. One more swing of her body brought her out onto the top, in a curve like a caterpillar making a journey. A cat climbs in much the same way. Then Jane was happy. She ran and danced along the wall. She made an unforgettable picture against the sky – a thin little figure with very long legs and very short skirts. Her hair, the colour of honey, tossed about her face, which was always strangely pale, like a little white flame, vivid for all its pallor”
Jane was is such trouble when she was spotted on the wall but she carried out; keeping her naughtiness secret and playing the good girl; learning how the world worked from novels.
I had to feel for her; and to fear for her.
When Jane’s parents were killed in an accident she went to live with her grandmother, and then she really had to be good; Jane’s grandmother was a formidable woman who held firm to her Victorian values and had no time for anyone who didn’t do the same, who centred her life on her family estate and expected Jane, her heiress, to do the same.
As time passes life presents Jane with possibilities: marriage, friendship, wartime service, convent life …. but they never grew into more than possibilities, because Jane could never find the courage and strength to face uncertainties, the approbation of others, and most of all the disapproval of her grandmother.
Jane told herself that those things weren’t important, that she had enough of a life:
“I don’t think my life has been empty. I was content. But perhaps I like emptiness.”
But she was lonely, she was fearful, and she was horribly resentful of anyone who had more in their life than she did,
This probably isn’t sounding like a book to love, and it certainly isn’t a book for everybody. I can understand why many people would find her infuriating. But as a Jane who was a painfully shy bookish child I understood, and I cared.
And there were things that illuminated the story.
The tone was lovely; it was demure but it was also bright and hopeful. So was the prose, especially the dialogue and the descriptions.
There are little hints of the fairy-tale. And there is a touch of autobiography; Edith Olivier’s life was constrained, but she found – she made – a new life for herself.
There are lovely glimpses of the part of the world that she loved; and I suspect that the lives of the social circle that Jane wasn’t a part of echoed the lives of the friends that the author made when she made that new life for herself,
In the end, after her grandmother’s death, Jane has a second chance of marriage when she met the man she had loved long ago.
But could Jane leave behind her grandmother’s principles and catch up with – and enjoy – a world that had moved on without her?
“It struck her as a most indecent spectacle, yet it really was a most a most delicious sight.
The long lean figures of the bathers shot like curved and living arrows through the stream’s uncertain and changing lights. They caught twinkling gleams and shadows. They were clothed in clear green water-colour, unearthly and magic. Beautiful fish they might have been, now diving and moving soundlessly through the water, and then coming to the surface, spluttering and splashing, real ragamuffins after all.”
Jane’s reaction to that scene answers the question, and leads the story to a natural conclusion.
It was a moving ending, to a story that really struck a chord.