I did hope, a few days ago, that the difficulty was going to solve itself. Mrs Harrison announced that she was going to take up office work again. The idea of it seemed to brighten her up tremendously, and I think it would be the best thing she could do. But, of course, the Bear played his old trick again. When she first announced her decision, he pretended to agree, and said she could do as she liked, so was awfully pleased, and rang up one of the people at her old office to see if they had a vacancy there. As it happened, they had, and she practically arranged to start work next week. Then Mr Bear started off. ‘All right? Well, I suppose it is all right if you think so. But don’t you think it’s a trifle hard on me, my dear, having a wife out all day, fagging herself to death in an office and coming home fit for nothing? I give you a good home, and I rather expected, or hoped, you would like to make it a home for me to come back to. That is the usual idea, isn’t it? But I suppose the modern woman thinks differently about these things. If hotel life is your notion of happiness you ought to go and live in America.’
It is too bad to work upon the poor girl’s feelings in that selfish way. She tried to reason with him, but, of course, the end was that she made herself perfectly sick with crying, and wrote and told the people that she couldn’t manage to take the job after all. And now he goes about saying it’s a pity she can’t find something better to do with herself than reading trashy novels all day. I spoke up. I said, ‘Mr Harrison, excuse me, but you ought not to speak to your wife like that. She gave up the work she wanted to do, entirely to please you, and I think you ought to consider her a little more and yourself a good deal less.’ I daresay he wasn’t best pleased, but I thought it my duty to say it. I felt most terribly exhausted after this trying scene. It is such a drain upon one’s personality, coping with outbreaks of this kind. One is giving, giving, all the time. I am asking Dr Trevor to prescribe me a tonic. A curious feature of my malady at the moment is a craving for shrimps. Our fishmonger keeps very good ones, but sometimes I have to go quite a long way to get them, because I am afraid he will think it funny if I buy shrimps every day.
I am sure I don’t know what we should do if it were not for Mr Lathom. He often drops in of an evening now and cheers us up immensely. The Bear is always dragging the poor man off into his studio, as he calls it, to twaddle about art, but Mr Lathom has most delightful manners and puts up with it heroically. He thinks my scarf-patterns and stocking-tops show great talent, ‘a very good sense of design’. He is a real artist, so I am sure he wouldn’t say so if he didn’t think it.
We do not see much of the objectionable Mr Munting, I am glad to say. He often doesn’t come home till very late. You never know what these men are after. It is a good thing that he shares the maisonette with Mr Lathom, who I am sure would not allow any undesirable goings-on under our roof.
I hope darling Joan is quite strong again now. Give her my love, and say I have started on the scarf. I am doing a pattern of purple and white clematis, which will be very chic, I think.Your loving sister, Aggie
11. John Munting to Elizabeth Drake
15a, Whittington Terrace 19.10.28
Damn it all, yes, Bungie — I suppose you are right. Our ideas are always ahead of our actions, or rather, askew to them, and we move lop-sided, like a knight on a chess-board. We get somewhere, even if it isn’t the place we thought we were aiming for. By the time the next generation has come along, the ideas which were new and strange to us have become part of its habitual commonplace. It goes straight along them, even when it imagines it is rebelling against them.
And after all, this business of imagining that one is one kind of thing and being actually another — we all do it, all the time, so why shouldn’t whole nations and periods do it? Have you read J. D. Beresford’s Writing Aloud, by the way? It is enormously fascinating, and I delight in the bit where he tells how, in his callow youth, he had a ‘passionate impulse’ to ‘save’ a young prostitute he had talked to, and then prayed desperately to be delivered from the sin of hypocrisy and be made single-hearted and all that — only to be delighted, later on in life, with the discovery that he was ‘not one person but fifty’. One imagines — one dramatises oneself into the belief that one is going one way, and lo and behold! the path ‘gives itself a little shake’ like the one in Alice and one finds oneself walking at the front door again.
Our friend Mrs Harrison is a perfect example of this dramatisation business — and is quite capable of dramatising herself in two totally inconsistent directions at once, rather like the Victorian age. Any attitude that appeals to her sense of the picturesque she appropriates instantly, and, I really believe, with perfect sincerity. If she reads a ‘piece in the paper’ about the modern woman who finds spiritual satisfaction in a career, she is that woman; and her whole life has been ruined by having had to give up her job at the office. Capable, intelligent, a comradely woman, meeting male and female on a brisk, pleasant, man-to-man basis — there she is! If, on the other hand, she reads about the necessity of a ‘complete physical life’ for the development of personality, then she is the thwarted maternal woman, who would be all right if only she had a child. Or if she gets a mental picture of herself as a Great Courtesan (in capital letters), she is perfectly persuaded that her face only needed opportunity to burn the topless towers of Ilium. And so on. What she really is, if reality means anything, I do not know. But I can see now, what I didn’t see before, that this power of dramatisation coupled with a tremendous vitality and plenty of ill-regulated intelligence, has its fascination. If ever she found anyone to take one of her impersonations seriously, she would probably be able to live very brilliantly and successfully in that character for — well, not all her life, perhaps, but for long enough to make an impressive drama of it. Unfortunately, the excellent Harrison is not a good audience. He admires, but he won’t clap, which must be very discouraging.
‘You will gather from this that I have been seeing a good deal of the Harrisons. Quite right, Sherlock, I have. When you once make up your mind to look on people as social studies, you can get quite reconciled to their company. Mrs H. cornered me in the artistic sitting-room last night, while her husband was telling Lathom about aerial perspective, to tell me about her own personality. She feels cramped in her surroundings, it seems. Her mentality has no room to expand. It is so hard for a woman, isn’t it? Perhaps the only way is to express herself through her children — but then — if one has no children? She said she always felt she could have made herself a happy life by living for and in others. I did not say that she would probably end by devouring her hypothetical family, though I could very well see her doing it. I felt mischievous, and said that there were other forms of passionate altruism, and that I could see her in a cloister, walking serenely among the lilies and burning her soul away in contemplation. Could I really? Well, yes, there was something very wonderful about the life of devotion. I ought to write a book about it. At this point I became a little alarmed, and turned the conversation to new books. We had a little difficulty, because her idea of an important writer and my idea are not exactly identical; however, we agreed that The Constant Nymph was a very good piece of work, and, encouraged by that, she tackled the awkward question of Deadlock. I tried to explain what I had really meant by it, and she proved quite adaptable. She said she did not mind a book’s being ‘powerful’, provided it was filled with a ‘sense of the beautiful’. She thought Sweet Pepper was powerful, but nevertheless there was something about it that redeemed it. What a pity it was that Hutchinson hadn’t written another book like If Winter Comes. She thinks that if only I wouldn’t be so harsh and mocking I might write a book as strong and really beautiful as that.
These are the people who read the books, Bungie. And what are we to do about it, you and I, if we want to live by bread?
Next day I met her in the hall, dressed in a demure grey frock, with a long veil swathed nun-like about her cloche hat. She saluted me with a grave and far-away smile. I grinned cheerfully, and mentioned that I was going to watch a football match.
Your not-very-well-behaved and rather maliciousJack
12. The Same to the Same