In its early stages the book is full of beautiful observations about the predominantly female guests: the woman who feeds her meal to her badly behaved dog, the greedy woman and daughter combination who love spending their money and who take Edith under their wing (ostensibly because she is alone but actually so they can talk at her and patronise her), the Comtesse who his in the hotel as a sort of retirement home having been put their by her son acting under the orders of his wife.
Into this grey world comes Mr Neville, a man dressed in grey. Disconcertingly, he knows Edith as her nom de plume. Later he seems to be able to read her mind and to know her better than she knows herself. Already slightly sinister, at the half way point of the story he reveals his moral code: "You cannot live someone else's life. You can only live your own. And remember, there are no punishments. Whatever they told you about unselfishness being good and wickedness being bad was entirely inaccurate. It is a lesson for serfs and it leads to resignation. And my policy, you may be surprised to hear, will ensure you any number of friends. People feel at home with low moral standards. It is scruples that put them off." (p 96) This is a man who lives up to the evil in the middle of his name (which makes me wonder about Miss HOPE and the very HotELduLac).
Following this very frank courtship, Edith goes on the last silent boat across the grey lake. This is a chapter reeking in mythic metaphor, to the extent of describing Mr Neville as a "curiously mythological personage". When Edith regrets joining Neville on the boat ("Ships, she knew, were often used by painters as symbols of the soul, sometimes of the soul departing for unknown shores. Of death, in fact. Or, if not of death, not of anything very hopeful.") she reflects on the inappropriateness of the adage that the devil finds work for idle hands: "One cannot even rely on Satan to fulfil his obligations." Mr Neville tells her that "as to vice, there is plenty to be found if you know where to look" and when she replies that she never seems to find it he suggests "that is because you do not give yourself over wholeheartedly to the pursuit. But ... we are going to change all that." And then he proposes. And as they prepare to disembark he says in two beautiful double entendres: "We must get off, Edith. Give me your hand." This, the penultimate chapter, is beautifully written.
The whole book is beautiful. A gentle comedy of manners, well observed, has become a wonderfully Mephistophelean temptation.
Other brilliant lines:
- "everything that Mrs Pusey had said so far was of the utmost triviality. Clearly there were depths here that deserved her prolonged attention." (p 40)
- "The beautiful day had within it the seeds of its own fragility: it was the last day of summer." (p 67)
- "There is something quite heartening about ... simple greed." (p 96)
- "Do me a favour ...I do not have any plans. I never have any plans. I should have thought that was fairly obvious by now. I thought you were supposed to be a writer. Aren't you supposed to be good at observing human nature, or something? I only ask because you sometimes strike me as being a bit thick." (p 144)
A fabulous book. July 2016; 184 pages