I’m still not really sure about Violet Trefusis as a writer; nothing I’ve read so far (in all the two and a half books I’ve got through) has proved as interesting as her personal life. She’s probably a better writer than Vita Sackville-West (the personal life again, but this is how I heard of Violet and why I eventually picked up one of her books, that and it was a virago classic) but given my track record trying to plough through Vita’s books that’s faint praise.
Doubts aside ‘Hunt the Slipper’ is the best Trefusis I’ve read so far (more faint praise but I will definitely have another go at ‘Pirates at Play’ after this). If you don’t care for spoilers it might be as well to stop looking now, this is a book to read to find out why and how things happen, the plot is a fairly pedestrian man meets girl and then it starts to go wrong affair.
Nigel Benson is, at 49, an aging sybarite who has set up home with his sister Molly. They live happily enough together, she has her garden, he has his food, his house in perfect taste, and his bibelots, along with the occasional elegantly conducted flirtation – although to Molly’s relief these are becoming less frequent. Social duty takes them on a visit to the Crome’s; Sir Anthony and his young wife Caroline, Caroline is shockingly rude and that would be the end of it except that the four meet again in Paris. It’s at this point that Nigel begins to see Caroline as attractive, and sees she’s in love with another man. Bad luck for Caroline that other man turns out to be a bounder and she catches flu. Bad luck for Nigel because he keeps her company whilst she’s sick and falls in love with her.
Caroline is able to return to England without a backwards glance, but poor Molly is left to drag Nigel around Italy in a forlorn and tortured state. On the whole it seems to agree with him though because he returns home lean and fit. Meanwhile Caroline and Anthony have been travelling around Italy too where she’s become increasingly restless and increasingly attached to her memories of Nigel. All the while a delicate game is being played out in letters. When they finally do meet again an affair is quickly begun but Nigel is plagued by jealousy and insecurity regarding his age. Caroline in turn is totally ruthless in emotional matters and given to the grand gesture. She wants to marry Nigel and bear his children, welcomes the possibility of a scandal, longs to work and struggle and live (in the way that people who never have had to work or struggle do) and has no compunction when it comes to leaving her existing husband and child.
For Nigel the choice is harder (for some reason Molly never figures in the equation although an elopement would render her homeless as well) Caroline would mean the loss of Ambush, the house that Nigel loves to the point of worship, it would also mean the worst kind of betrayal of his friend Anthony who can be urbane about a discreet affair but would be devastated by open scandal. It’s also clear to Nigel that when the time comes Caroline will be able to leave him just as easily to move onto her next adventure leaving him with nothing.
There are echoes of Violet’s affairs here but interestingly I think both Nigel and Caroline are self portraits. The introduction and afterword are both fairly insistent that Nigel is Violet as she was by the late 1930’s when this book was written. I don’t doubt that Caroline is Violet as she was in her early twenties before she discovered that the world might not be well lost for love. Had this been another rehash of past events the only interest would have been prurient, but the sense that it’s all Violet made it work for me. My sympathies were with Nigel, I think Violets were with Caroline a lot of the time but without doubt (this time) it’s an honest and intriguing exploration of the game people play in love.