I should have mentioned that I was enjoying ‘The Devil’s Elixirs’ so much that it kept me from reading ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ the latest Marghanita Laski to be published by Persephone, and a book that I’ve been desperate to get stuck into since I bought it a couple of weeks ago. Well Sunday was the day that I finally got round to it and it wasn’t disappointing.
I read my way through most of Mary Wesley’s output some years back which in many ways covers the same sort of territory as ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ – nice girls taking advantage of the war to sleep with whoever they want. The difference is that Laski wrote this in 1946 when it perhaps wasn’t the done thing to admit that women had behaved in this way. By the time Wesley was writing our grandmothers misdemeanours where far easier to relate to.
Plot wise there isn’t much to it; a young married couple bid goodbye to each other as he’s sent off to Cairo and she stays behind to keep the home fires burning, however good intentions don’t last long and she’s soon off to London where she drifts from lover to lover trying to pack in as much fun as possible. Laski published the novel under a false name apparently because the tart-without-a-heart character Deborah Robertson was based on a friend and she didn’t want her to recognise herself. I think it’s fair to say that the book reads like one woman trying to make sense of another’s lifestyle – and not always succeeding. What fascinated me about ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ is the way it highlights how moral values have shifted – that and the double standard between how men and women are judged.
Deborah at only about 24 is still a very young woman by my reckoning – very young to be married with a child and settled in the country with a fairly limited social life. The book starts with her and her husband saying their goodbyes in bed. He flatly refuses to entertain the idea of remaining faithful to her, but promises his affairs will be meaningless. Frankly this is an attitude I’d find hard to condone in a husband even in a war and his first few letters home are full of tales of moonlight picnics in the desert and Cairo parties, so no wonder his wife at home feels pretty miffed.
Admittedly Deborah comes across as a basically shallow and selfish woman – she wants a good time and nice things and is entirely capable of justifying whatever means she employs to get them, but infidelity aside I don’t find her so very morally corrupt or hard to relate to. Her affairs are transient things based on a desire for companionship, sex, and a generally good time with a bit of glamour thrown in by way of dinner at the Savoy and a frivolous hat or two. Nothing the modern woman can’t sympathise with in that, and yet by the end Deborah is shown in a mercilessly harsh light as little better than a prostitute.
Although Laski doesn’t entirely excuse the men Deborah sleeps with, neither does she treat them as harshly, somehow their affairs are less offensive. Joe the American officer who talks Deborah into her first major affair is let off the hook by falling in love, something she despises him a little for. Deborah’s emotional manipulation of given situations to get her own way, or to appear in a better light are also described in a fairly critical light, but these are the times when I have most sympathy for her. They ring so true.
In the end it’s hard to like Deborah; I prefer Mary Wesley’s infinitely less judgemental approach to the same sort of women but that's not meant to diminish how much I loved this. ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ works as both a little bit of social history and as a cracking attempt to get under the skin of a scarlet woman from a broadly sympathetic (or at least not overtly hostile) view point. I’m hoping this book will be widely blogged about and discussed – I’m keen to see what others made of it.