"Mrs Ames is queen of Riseborough society. Sceptre firmly grasped in her podgy little hand, she reigns supreme in a world of strawberry teas, high street gossip and riotous insurrections by misguided pretenders like Mrs Altham, Miss Brooks and dear cousin Millie. But, Mrs Ames is ten years older than her husband and beginning to feel all her fifty-seven years"
Yes it is E F Benson, one of the latest reprinted by the Bloomsbury Group and yes we are in familiar territory as the reader starts enjoying the Tilling type infighting and jockeying for social position, amusing and witty as always, but gradually realises that there is dissatisfaction and vague unhappiness underneath it all. Mrs Ames husband, Lyndhurst, forms a romantic attachment to his wife's cousin Millie, who is married to the local doctor, Dr Carter. They flirt in a gentle, understated way. Millie is a woman who makes men feel desirable and such fine fellows:
"She gave him one of those shy little deprecating glances that made him involuntarily feel that he was the most agreeable companion. 'Ah you are being wicked now.....you understand better than anybody".
He becomes drawn into a semi-serious flirtation which takes place over the summer months. It gradually becomes noticeable to Mrs Ames and it is then that she has to sit down and ponder on her feelings for Lyndhurst, and realises that she is fond of him, she loves him and has no intention of letting anything further happen. She takes herself off for a series of restorative treatments in order to rekindle her husband's interest but despite her best endeavours, this is a failure. She banks on her husband's love of his easy life, his position in the small town where they live, the years they have been married and is sure this will stop him doing anything reckless.
However, matters progress further than either Mrs Ames or Dr Carter thought they would and both of the middle aged lovers decide to leave together. Cousin Millie had entered into this flirtation in a light hearted manner as a mere diversion from her rather boring life but something had crept into her consciousness, had disturbed her:
"Neither wifehood nor motherhood had awakened her womanhood. In that she was a woman she was that most dangerous of all created or manufactured things, an unexploded shell, liable to blow to bits both itself and any who handled her.......the heart of it had never been penetrated by the love that could transform its violence into strength..."
For most of this novel I found Cousin Millie a rather irritating character, one of these helpless feminine creatures who drift rather selfishly through life using beauty and charm to get their way. Nothing mean or spiteful about her, just an acceptance that she was beautiful and desirable and that she did not have to make much of an effort to be loved. But danger lurks and she feels real emotion for the first time and, though Colonel Ames was drawn to her, it is made clear that he is afraid of being too heavily involved and when it comes to taking the final step, has huge doubts:
"....for a moment all these trivialities stood away from him and for an interval he saw where he stood and what he was doing - the vileness the sordidness, the vulgarity of it..."
Mrs Ames is not just another Mapp and Lucia type gossipy novel. It has very many funny witty moments, particularly a Shakespearian fancy dress party where all the ladies decide to keep their costumes a secret and then all turn up as Cleopatra, the usual jockeying for social position and the petty intrigues and gossiping, but ultimately this is rather a melancholy, sad little story.
"Millie you are not going to see Lyndhurst....the tension of those wide childish eyes slowly relaxed and her head sank forward and there came the terrible and blessed tears in wild cataract and streaming storm. And Mrs Ames looking at her felt all her righteousness relax; she had only pity for this poor destitute soul ...........slowly the tears ceased and the sobs were still and Millie raised her dim, swollen eyes.
'I had better go home, I wonder if you would let me wash my face cousin Amy. I must be a perfect fright'. 'Yes dear Millie' said she 'but there is no hurry we shall have some tea'
'I don't see how I can ever be happy again' she said.
'No Millie; said the other 'none of us three are that exactly. We shall all have to be patient, very patient and ordinary'
Life will go on as usual and gradually Colonel Ames and Cousin Millie will get used to seeing each other again and this will fade away, though I cannot help but feel that while Colonel Ames will be happy to settle back into his quiet routine, Millie will not. She has been awakened to deeper feelings and I feel that her happiness in her previous life will never be enough for her. As I finished this book I thought of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, another woman whose deeper feelings were aroused by a summer love affair. There was no way back for her, so what will happen to Millie?
Val Hennessy reviews this today in the Mail under the heading "Desperate Housewives go to War". She says it is 'funny, astutely obserbed and scattered with exquisite descriptions - sublime satire'. Well it is all she says and yet I feel she has totally missed the sadness and broken dreams portrayed in this book. Yes it is funny but it is so much more.