Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Return To Night - Mary Renault
When Virago first looked to reprint 'The Friendly Young Ladies' back in the early 80's and not long before Renault died she was keen to alter the ending which she felt was too conventional and unconvincing (one if the young ladies rides off into the sunset with a man) in the end a compromise was reached in the form of an afterword. Sarah Dunant suggests in her introduction to these reissues that the same criticism of an imposed happy ending could be levelled at 'Return To Night' but I'm inclined to disagree. Reading 'The Friendly Young Ladies' a decade ago the ending suggested that the heroine was still exploring herself. In 'Return To Night' it's a bit more complicated.
It's 1938 and Dr Hilary Mansell is in her mid 30's with a stalling career. After a job she wants in London goes to her lover, David, she clears off into country practice where she's somewhat bored by the slower pace and more routine work. When Julian Fleming is admitted with a head injury Hilary's experience saves his life, but she also manages to make an enemy of his mother. Later the pair meet again, Julian is extravagantly attractive, intelligent, charming, 10 years younger than Hilary, and has an uncomfortable relationship with his mother. Despite herself she falls in love with him, and he with her. Julian's sexuality is arguably ambiguous but I think this is a red herring; beautiful young men who want to be actors and are uncomfortably close to their mothers do not have to be gay, but it's a convenient suspicion for the reader to hold whilst they try and decipher the tension between mother and son. And tension there is, Mrs Fleming is one of those terrifyingly horrible mothers that crop up all over the place in books of this vintage (do they still? I don't read enough contemporary fiction to really know.) her relationship with Julian is desperately manipulative - she controls him by deliberately withdrawing her favour and affection. There is never anything as vulgar or openly expressed as anger or frustration, never any discussion, just a pervasive sense of disapproval or disappointment which is utterly corrosive. Julian is undeniably damaged, but then how many women don't want to fix a man at some point in there lives?
This book works now because one taboo that remains firmly in place is that of an older woman having a relationship with a younger man. Eleven years is enough for the reader to know that Hilary is right to fear being made to look a fool, to worry about the condemnation of her family, and to dread local gossip - none of these are calculated to help a relationship. She's right too to wonder how much she can trust in the continuing love of a still very young and inexperienced man, and how as a woman with a profession can she go on respecting a man who has none. Or as a woman who fought her own parents to get into that profession how does she find the patience to accept a man who hasn't yet worked out how to do the same? And then Julian wants marriage which make all of Hilary's considerations so much more acute; it would after all be so public.
In the end marriage, or at least an engagement, becomes necessary despite Hilary's doubts or Julian's reservations about his mothers reaction. For Hilary it's hardly a conventional happy ending - she understands that she's as much replacement mother as lover, and by the same measure Julian is in part the child she's unlikely to have. But. War is on the horizon, written in 1946 it's made clear that we know the war has happened even if it's set in 38-39, Julian is going into the airforce and Hilary is a surgeon as well as a GP. Survival is hardly assured so having found love, even messy far from perfect love, why not take a chance on any happiness that's going?
There are clearly parallels between Renault's relationship with another woman and Hilary and Julian's situation - discreet affairs might be tolerated but an open relationship would be a scandal (that 70 years later same sex marriages should still be a contentious issue is a disgrace) in which case the happy ending is that this book bought Renault a huge wedge of cash from MGM which allowed her and her partner to move to South Africa where they lived together until Mary died more than 30 years later. There are things about the book which aren't perfect - it's a bit too Freudian in places (underground caves especially make for quite heavy handed symbolism) but it's a hell of a page turner and she nails so much about loving that it shouldn't be missed.