Based on a real-life divorce case in Victorian London, this is the story of 'Fido' Faithfull, a spinster proprietor of a printing press active in the 'womanist' movement, and her best friend Helen, wife of Admiral Codrington. After seven letterless years Helen returns from Malta with a young naval officer in tow; soon we discover that they are having an affair. But then the Admiral begins to suspect. What is the truth and who is telling it? Every character has a reason to tell lies; nothing is simple in this beautifully crafted tale. Donoghue's tale is full of contradictions: Fido, heavily asthmatic, smokes; she is strong in support of female rights and yet she is appalled by adultery. Everyone has secrets; this is a world in which truth, even perjury, is of less consequence than respectability. Just as steam trains with open carriages run in tunnels beneath the streets of London, so unquenchable passion surges beneath the surface of elegant matrimony.
To encapsulate this she uses one very striking (perhaps obvious) metaphor. The father tells his daughters: "There's a house in Bayswater that's only a false facade, constructed to cover a railway tunnel ... It looks more harmonious that way, I suppose. Otherwise people walking down that street would suddenly glimpse a train rushing past their feet." The unspoken message is that respectability is a necessary facade built to cover our underground passions, otherwise people walking down the street would be frightened. Of course, already at this point Helen and Fido (with Helen's boyfriend) have travelled on the Underground railway. Symbolic!
One of the striking things about the way this book is written is its use of the present tense.
Lots of lovely lines:
- “The skin-tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one.” (p 6)
- “You’re not the stuff of a chapter ... several volumes at least.” (p 10)
- “The phrases are delivered with the sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.” (p 10)
- “If one get paid for one’s work, one knows somebody wants it.” (p 31)
- “Prigs are the worst of women; all that prudery hides lust for power.” (p 35)
- “Haven't the years done anything to soften you two to each other?
- Oh you innocent ... that's not what the years do.” (p 38)
- “The problem with deterrence is that it can only be inferred, not proved. It's like having some fat porter outside with a pistol in his greatcoat ... who shakes himself awake when you open the door, to assure you that since breakfast his presence has kept a dozen murderers from garotting the whole family!” (p 82)
- “The happiest marriages are made up of three parties.” (p 116)
- “He's weeping like a child, weeping for all the times over the years that he's shrugged instead.” (p 128)
- “I'm not managing to plan anything: I'm running and leaping and tripping like some hunted rabbit!” (p 137)
- “The machine rolls on but squeals, the little screws are starting to loosen and pop out.” (p 144)
- “Helen is fallen: that odd word always makes Fido think of a wormy apple.” (p 230)
- “Really bad women can move from vice to vice, like butterflies in a flowerbed.” (p 352)
But most of all, fantastic characters trapped in insoluble dilemmas. I turned the pages! October 2017; 464 pages