e m delafield, fiction, gender, literature, midcentury, miss pettigrew lives for a day, novels, sexuality, the provincial lady, winifred watson
Midcentury British fiction by women is one of my favourite genres, and I have the overdraft with Persephone Books to prove it. I was rereading a few classics recently, and noticed something which I’ve only been half-aware of in the past. It was probably because we’d just rewatched both dramatisations of Mapp and Lucia, with their differing presentations of the relationship between Lucia and Quaint Irene, but going from E.F. Benson’s carefully coded male view of one gay women made me notice what appeared to be lesbians all over the place.
To be more specific, they appeared in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels. Or rather, characters who weren’t lesbians, but whose conversations and perceptions were presented in ways which would be almost definitely read as gay in modern writing. When the wry and beaten-down Miss Pettigrew first meets the glamorous Miss LaFosse, the latter is described very definitely from the former’s point of view:
Miss Pettigrew gasped. The creature was so lovely, she called to mind immediately beauties of the screen. Her golden, curly hair, tumbled untidily about her face. Sleep was still heavy in her eyes, blue as gentians. The lovely rose of youth flushed in her cheeks. She wore that kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing-gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films.
The rush of vaguely hackneyed romantic imagery (”blue as gentians”, “tumbled untidily”) and cinema references (“the most famous of stars in seduction scenes”) makes it clear that Miss LaFosse is being read through a particular set of genre conventions. Miss Pettigrew is seeing her as a romantic heroine, presented to what Laura Mulvey would later identify as the “male gaze” in film. She appears as an enticing and charming figure, framed to attract the romantic appreciation of the viewer, even though the viewer in this case is Miss Pettigrew.
Through the next few chapters Watson develops the comedy via the tension between Miss Pettigrew’s personal life and feelings, and the way she reads Miss LaFosse (and her life) in cinematic terms:
Miss LaFosse wore nothing but a peach-coloured silk dressing-gown. As she moved carelessly her robe swished apart, and Miss Pettigrew had a glimpse of beautifully modelled limbs, of flawless, pale-coloured flesh. Her face was flushed a delicate pink by the heat. The steam had fluffed her hair into tiny, curling tendrils round her face. Miss Pettigrew regarded her with shy admiration.
“You are very lovely.”
“Well, now”, smiled Miss LaFosse, “that is very nice of you to say so.”
She slipped off her dressing-gown unconcernedly and began hunting round for another garment. Miss Pettigrew gasped, blinked, shut her eyes, opened them again
“It is I,” thought Miss Pettigrew sternly, “who have an evil mind. What’s wrong with the human body? Nothing. Didn’t the Lord make it, the same as our faces? Certainly. Would He create anything He thought wrong? No. Isn’t it only the exigencies of our climate which have demanded clothes? Of course. It’s all in the way of thinking. I’ve a silly, narrow mind. I’ve never seen anything lovelier than Miss LaFosse standing there.”
She slipped into a bit of silk and lace. Miss Pettigrew gave a gentle sigh of relief. She was quite willing to have her outlook widened, but she was a bit old to move too precipitately.
Alongside the obvious humour provided by the clash of the two women’s world-views, there’s another kind of comedy here, as we see Miss Pettigrew viewing Miss LaFosse, and herself reflecting on the way she views her new acquaintance. There are both the clichés of moviegoing and watching a distant star, and the impact of Miss LaFosse’s immediate presence, which Miss Pettigrew tries to rationalise to herself.
The way she reacts to Miss LaFosse’s glamour is – I gather from better-informed people – not inherently unlikely for a woman in this era. I remember hearing a paper by Lisa Stead, in which she described fan writing by women about female stars in midcentury cinema. Alongside the use of female starts as fashion exemplars or role models, there was apparently a certain amount of appreciation which took the form of romantic poetry addressed to them, and descriptions of the fans’ feelings towards these stars. I wonder if the passages above make more sense in this context – as expressions of fan appreciation which uses the tropes of romantic adoration to express women’s feelings for women? After all, Miss Pettigrew isn’t gay in this novel, though anyone only reading those quotations might be surprised to hear it.
E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady is less striking in her descriptions of other women, but I kept noticing the way men and women appear differently in her narratives. Though she talks a lot about the importance of securing men to make social life successful, and resenting women who can attract lots of men, she never quite pays them much attention. Two particular pairs of passages in the novels point up this tendency. The first two come quotations come from the sequence when the protagonist arrives at the complex of basements under the Adelphi where she is trying to find war work:
Trousered women are standing and walking about in every direction, and great number of men with armlets. Irrelevant reflection here to the effect that this preponderance of masculine society, so invaluable at any social gathering, is never to be seen on ordinary occasions.
Serena then offers me coffee and a cigarette. I reply, though gratefully, that I have already had both and she assures me that this war is really being won on coffee and cigarettes, by women in trousers.
In reasonably quick succession we are informed of the exciting presence of men, and then distracted by the personalities of women. And given how the Second World War has become the focus for stories of romance and fetishized for its fashions, it struck me how easily Serena’s offer of a cigarette and comment about women in trousers would sound like an attempt to pick up the heroine in a modern screen version. Certainly the relationship between “the Commandant” and “Darling” would read very much like a gay relationship in its current wording.
The same process is noticeable near the end of The Provincial Lady in America, to almost comic effect, as the protagonist is taken out to see Harlem before leaving the country:
I become part of the Night Life of New York, and left more or less stunned by the experience, which begins at seven o’clock when Miss Ramona Herdman comes to fetch me. She is accompanied by second charming young woman – Helen Something – and three men, all tall. (Should like to congratulate her on this achievement but do not, of course, do so.)
Eugene talks about publishing, and I listen with interest, except for tendency to look at his enormous eyelashes and wonder if he has any sisters, and if theirs are equally good.
Presented with the presence of three men, the Provincial Lady is impressed, but immediately interprets them as personal achievements by the young woman who has come to take her out. When she gets into conversation with one of the obligingly-provided young men, she goes as far as focussing on his attractive eyelashes, but this spins her off into wondering about an imaginary sister and whether she is so attractive. A woman who does not exist (as far as she knows) is more interesting and attractive than the man in front of her, whose company she claims to be delighted by. But – as with Miss Pettigrew – this doesn’t seem to be the heroine struggling with her unacknowledged attraction to other women. Her attention simply slides off the men and onto the women.
So I wonder if what might look like lesbian writing to a modern audience – in these cases – is mostly an effect of the sustained attention being paid by a woman to another woman? Is this something which we see quite as much in modern popular fiction? Certainly I found it unusual enough to scrutinise the passages, in an attempt to work out why they read as vaguely gay in their sensibility. What do you think? Am I entirely over-reading these passages, or is there a different mode of writing going on here from a lot mainstream fiction today? Is what chimed as subtly lesbian in fact this quality of sustained and appreciative attention by women towards others?
Have you noticed how many women shared houses, sometimes as companion/employer, but often on an equal basis in ‘between the wars’ fiction? Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh etc etc (endless setting up of chicken farms!) there is in Agatha Chris? The earlier TV series eg with Joan Hicks as Miss Marple, and the books themselves don’t make anything of it, but later dramatisations are inclined to look sideways, with a bit of ‘nudge nudge wink wink.. So, were these ALL lightly concealed sexual relationships in the books? Or was it just entirely normal between the wars for unattached women to pool their resources with congenial friends? Especially as so many eligible young men had died, leaving bereaved fiancés and widows and a surplus of women of marriageable age?
(It:is noticeable that ‘camp’ men are treated with disgust in the same type of books.)
Yes indeed – your comment about chicken farms made me laugh, as I had been thinking about Sayers’ “Unnatural Death” whilst writing this piece, with the two women going off to research chicken farms. In fact that was one of the books that I think could do with more sustained attention on this topic: it really does look as if Sayers is carrying out some sort of scrutiny of same-sex friendships and even relationships on the basis of power and value. The foolish pash which becomes something more dangerous because one of the people involved uses it for her own power, versus the historical story of the two women who lived together and never looked at men (and seemed to have done so happily), whose money is the basis of the crime. That comment by the ostler (?) about “the Lord makes some of ’em that way for his own purposes” (quoting, prob badly, from memory) versus Miss Climpson being “a thoroughly womanly woman” and “a spinster by accident, not by nature”.
As you say, I think different social arrangements are definitely in play here. Along with the “missing” men from the wars, I’m sure I’ve read in social historians that the 1950s and 60s saw a strengthening and consolidation of the idea that the nuclear family was the normative way for people to live. So perhaps people living together after that start to look like “versions” of the nuclear family, whereas before that it was more common for spinster friends to live together, or family members to set up house, or a man to live partly in his apartment and partly at his club? I think that might well get in the way of us understanding when people are a couple, if we assume that everyone in a household should either be “the husband one” or “the wife one”…
Having said that, I believe (again from memory) that Christie’s attitude is generally regarded as shifting over her career, (Her late books certainly try to tackle more obviously ‘modern’ situations, sometimes with cringey or unpleasant consequences.) The two women who live together in “A Murder Is Announced” are – I think – read by a lot of people as an undemonstrative but definitely lesbian couple. What they’re not, of course, written as is – to borrow a phrase from Alan Partridge – “sex people!” Their gay relationship seems to be written much more as a long-standing (romantic) affection, rather than focussing on the sexual implications, much like almost every heterosexual couple in Christie’s fiction (unless it affects the plot.)
I suspect – I may be wrong – that our society is a bit more sex-obsessed than some earlier times. That we read as sexual what may not have been intended that way. I’m not overly familiar with the works you reference, but I think of the debate that rages about the Biblical David and Jonathan – friends or lovers?
Which might say a lot more about how much we think about sex, than the nature of their relationship, since for many centuries commentators didn’t seem to see or feel the need to comment on the possibility of an erotic relationship in the text.
Note, I’m not taking a position either way. Simply noting that over the centuries their relationship has been read in different ways.
Yes indeed – that’s a fascinating one. Was it so obvious that no-one felt the need to comment, or so clearly not the case that no-one thought it worth denying, or so irrelevant? It also depends slightly how we read “women” in that line about their love surpassing the love of women, doesn’t it? Is that “better and purer than a man’s relationship with a member of the sex class”, “a much better kind of erotic love than the usual kind”, “so wrapped up in each other that they had no time for women”, “so committed to the sort of passionate friendship young men often form in their youth that they never settled down in a household and diffused that intense connection with the worries of being head of it”, “had a quality of intellectual and spiritual companionship which is only possible for those who are comrades” etc, etc!
You’re also surely right about the greater sexualisation of these relationships in a lot of modern readings. I was saying to a friend yesterday that part of what set me thinking in the Mapp and Lucia adaptations was the scene where Quaint Irene suggests she should go back (to visit/ live) with Lucia in Riseholme, and Lucia lets her into the secret that she’s staying in Tilling and Irene is overjoyed.
In the 80s version this is played rather adoringly and schoolgirlish, in the 2015 version it’s much more slow and sexually charged – but neither version can film what the text actually says, which is that Lucia can’t tell her the details of her plan immediately because Irene has taken her in her arms and is kissing her so much! Obviously Irene is gay, but Lucia clearly isn’t, and this isn’t taken as a seduction scene, simply a woman expressing her love for another woman in ways that are a bit over the top but not making a pass at her. No way, however, to film that these days without it looking unambiguously like a sexual gesture.
I think there are several things going on here – all of them culturally constructed over time and a range of factors. Absolutely spot-on the comment that we are in a current culture that emphasizes sex (rather than love or affection) – and that provides only that ‘a to b’ option for the expression of desire and/or love. There is certainly also a cultural shift in the post WWII era that stressed the heterosexual nuclear family as the ONLY option for constructing permanent cohabiting/affection based relationships between adults … where the ‘rules’ were far less exclusively heteronormative in the first half of the 20th century (though by no means actively pro-lesbian!). I think also there are cultural differences that come through with respect to class and women’s ability to live independently – and the freedom to make choices/choices made from necessity about who one lived with and why. These also change over time, and the post-war era in the UK and western Europe was a VERY different place than North America, as has been pointed out (and somewhat more cosmopolitan in outlook in certain times and places). There’s also the reality that the notion of romantic love is fairly recent; marriage was for procreation and for consolidating and improving finances and political gain, not love. It is not unlikely then, that women would find emotional support and love (of all sorts) from other women – in the absence of these things in their ‘job’ as wife. I won’t hazard a reading of these relationships here either, because I’d want to do much more research into the social context of both the authors and the texts in question. But it is interesting, nonetheless – both in a historical context, and as a lens through which to explore how our current readings of these relationships are framed and written by our present constructions of relationships, gender, and sexuality.
Dame Eleanor Hull said:
It might be useful to compare/contrast these books with Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, in which the lesbian pair of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent (yes, really) appear repeatedly. No one seems to bat an eyelash about them, though explicit terms are never used, but they are definitely a couple; it is made clear that in their tiny cottage there is one bedroom and one bed. I have trouble remembering what novels involve which characters (the series is long and ranges from one end of Barsetshire to the other), but they’re definitely in Jutland Cottage. Summaries here: http://www.angelathirkell.org/atbrief.htm but Hampton and Bent are minor enough characters that they don’t appear often in these summaries. There are other pairs of women who live together who seem less clearly marked as lesbian, so that might be helpful in working out the differences between unmarried friends who pair up for practical reasons and the genuinely, ah, Bent, if I may put it that way without offense.