Mrs Curtis endeavoured by a special tone she had to damp down the sensational element in the gift; the deprecate the trivial question of evening-dresses. Yet an indulgent smile lit the imperious aquiline benevolence of her features.
There is something about the middle classes that always strikes quite forcefully: the desire to tame the emotions. Today is Olivia’s birthday and in less than a week there is a ball in the local manor, her first public coming out. But, her mother insists, by her manner most of all, she mustn’t show too much excitement about either. She mustn’t, that is, lose control. All wonderfully caught by that imperious aquiline benevolence. Rosamond Lehmann, like all the best English novelists, so good on the nuances of class, its power expressed so imperceptibly.
No wonder they spend so much time talking about freedom! in those few years before office and respectability call them back into ritual and routine. Though how much they achieve is debatable. After the dance Kate and Olivia return home late in the morning, and Kate finds a note from her mother reminding her to lock up the house.
As if we needed to be reminded. But Mother would never trust one. Still it was funny really, nothing to be irritated about – rather endearing if one considered it in a detached way. She felt extraordinary detached.
The work has been done. Olivia is seventeen and Kate a few years older. The years of training and emotional trimming are almost at an end; enough has been achieved to let them a little free, amongst the young and privileged of one’s own class, and those just above it. And so the invitation to the ball is accepted; and the two sisters will dance at Sir John and Lady Spencer’s.
The book is divided into two (though there is a short middle section; a kind of dressing room to the main event). The first half is Olivia’s birthday, and describes the world of a late adolescence, where, with the coming ball, everything is seen afresh: like the hopeless Mr Skinner, whom she transforms with a big smile. Amongst this freshness we see a restricted middle class world, a restrained paradise; a corset, that by holding the body in check, allows for the beautiful dress to sit beautifully on top. Though, as always, through the gates in these high walls, we catch glimpses of the lower classes:
Intensely serious they were, hoarse, wary; forlorn as a group strayed from another world and clinging defensively together. Their eyes were sharp, bright, hard, rats’ eyes above high sharp cheekbones, their lips long, thin and flat, their skulls narrow and curiously knobbed. They didn’t look like other people’s children. They had hardly any hair; and undersized frames with square high shoulders, almost like hunchbacks, and frail legs; and they were enclosed in large trailing boots that clapped and flapped as they ran…
When she had gone a little way, they started to call after her.
Very soon a hoarse chant arose:
Livee Curtis is her nime,
Single is her station,
‘Appee is the luckee man
Who mikes the alterition.
And cackles, rude hoots and howls pursued her until she was out of sight.
The second half is dominated by the dance. It is full of young people; and the intoxication of hands on flesh, perfume, comely hair, tight suits and shapely dresses; with the occasional wit and charm. Drink is free in a separate room. How easily, surely, to get drunk and forget oneself… And all those years of hard work to create a sensible citizen, all could be ruined within a few hours. Will all that education be discarded; and those skimpy cami-knickers, Kate has made for this day, will they be removed with a deft hand and a few sweet words? Hardly, we think:
Lady Spencer was handsomer even than Queen Mary, in the same sculptural style, but of a more classical cast of features. A gown of silver brocade moulded her opulent but well controlled contours; a parure of diamonds and sapphires set off the imposing architecture of her bosom, and a tiara flashed above the severely carved wings of her grey hair. The girls adored her for her silver splendour, for the sense of lofty moral principle, of masterful beneficence, of affectionate despotism which she diffused. They feared for her eye, hawk-sharp to spot such details of appearance and behaviour as displeased her; for her tongue, unsparing to denounce offenders. She was always right. She knew it. They wished for her approval, and so far had retained it.
The young will not have free reign in this house; only their leads will be loosened, and they can stray just a little further than usual.
The children do not want to be set free, they know its dangers and costs – to be cast out of this affectionate despotism, where everyone is desperate to conform: thus the close attention to the details of dress and behaviour, the moats and walls of middle class life, protecting the unstable emotions within. Everyone is watching everyone else, each is their own guard and prisoner. And how they enjoy it! It is part of the game. They aspire to be great and above themselves, to be better than they are; though it is easier to pick out the faults and failings in others (how fun it is to laugh at the stiff and ridiculous, the socially embarrassing and the unwanted). If they don’t conform there is fear, of verbal censure; words like the punches and kicks of the poorer sort, who can only cackle, hoot and howl. Words are so important for control, this is perhaps why so much stress is put upon them, for they are padlocks for these garden gates; gardens they have so richly ornamented.
But people are meant to be free! Of course they are. Everybody must have a rite of passage; and some will fail; crashing miserably. Like Archie stupidly drunk (Olivia was late in reading the signs; another new code she has learned this evening); Mr Jenkin odd – a little too intellectual and too much the poet, and later lachrymose with drink -; while Mr Verity has always been a dirty own man. Olivia spots the latter almost straight away. Next time she will avoid him altogether, another lesson learned. For amongst this class the schoolroom is everywhere.
They passed out of earshot, moving serenely, unassailably in that place they lived in, that place from which Mr Jenkin, did he but know it, had just been dropped, without any fuss, for ever – a place where one’s sons didn’t drink too much or one’s guests overstep the bounds of permissible eccentricity by crude anti-social displays of hostility.
This is a social world, where everyone is the diplomat. Pretty women in skimpy dresses, and men in elegant dress suits, are like the expensive furniture, to be admired and commented on, but not pawed or stolen. Of course some will stray beyond the bounds; Marigold, daughter of the manor, and freer than the rest, can fascinate all the men, and even kiss one or two. It is permissible to be free when your freedom controls others. But for most of the party it is polite conversation, tasteful dancing and a repressed desire, that always stays within the genteel bounds of one’s own borders. This is the sine qua non of this little universe. How else are they going to run the country?
The failures are resentful.
‘Narrow-minded people are such a bore. I don’t think it matters what they say. They’re not worth bothering about. Where I live I shock some of the old frumps dreadfully because I go walking without my hat on.’
Mr Verity again, who is clearly ostracised:
‘One can be alone and yet not lonely, can’t one? One has one’s philosophy.’
We suspect Olivia will not end life as a Mr Verity; although she doesn’t quite fit in; she is too bookish, and doesn’t have the easy elegance, the unthinking rightness of dress and behaviour, of her elder sister. She is a little at odds with those around her; but she so desperately wants to be part of the crowd. This will save her. And we glimpse what may be her future salvation: she ends up in the manor’s inner sanctum with Sir John and his son Rollo; two others who are not keen on the social round, preferring books and quiet company.
Being so young and sharp, and also a little detached – the writer or intellectual has already emerged -, Olivia is alive to the small details, seeing everything in her own way; although often misreading the signs (this is something she has to learn, for if she doesn’t ruin will inevitably follow). She notices something different about Timmy: how he is set apart from the rest of the group. Only later does she realise he is blind. But when she does she has interesting things to see:
Waiting at the buffet for orangeade, she watched him take out his silver case and a matchbox and light his cigarette, slowly and carefully. Then he smoothed his hair, adjusted his tie, brushed his sleeve, his shoulders. In case I’ve left any mark, powder, a hair or anything. He’s afraid of looking slovenly, neglected, ridiculous, and not knowing it. That’s why he’s neater, more polished up than anybody else.
Later after they have danced, chatted and been very friendly, she says goodbye:
She heard him say after a moment:
‘Has she gone?’
It was just a question. No suspicion. No regret, or relief in it. No interest.
He has mastered the codes of his class. Olivia and Kate are still too young and inexperienced to do so. Nevertheless, Olivia maintains her purity, though Kate falls a little – Tony Heriot and she are in love. It is something for her mother to worry about…