The Friendly Young Ladies
by Mary Renault
A review by Charles Taylor
Reading Mary Renault's The Friendly Young Ladies is like settling down
with a warming cup of tea only to find yourself warily wondering if that bitter
flavor is the bite of almonds or the sting of cyanide.
Renault's 1944 novel, republished in a Vintage paperback edition, is both sharp
and light, a social comedy of sexual identity in which the issue is hardly discussed.
Leave those conversations to the dim or doctrinaire, seems to be Renault's attitude.
Most famous for her series of novels set in ancient Greece (The
King Must Die, The
Persian Boy and so on), Renault takes the changeability of sexuality for
granted. What may seem like the author's reticence is actually a mark of her
sophistication, far beyond the hard and fast boundaries of identity politics.
The era of The Friendly Young Ladies -- the novel takes place in 1937
-- had already acquired a nostalgic tinge when the book appeared five years
into the Second World War. Its first protagonist is 18-year-old Elsie Vaughan,
the sort of shy, fearful girl who you can imagine signing a letter to an agony
aunt "Cowed in Cornwall." Elsie, who has dropped out of school, lives
with her parents essentially as the pawn in their loveless marriage, and any
overture she makes to one is taken as a rebuff by the other. Encouraged by the
thoughtless attentions of a young doctor who fancies himself a Casanova of the
hand-holding type, Elsie leaves home in search of Leonora, the sister who departed
this family tomb nine years earlier.
Elsie had always imagined that her sister was not talked of because she had
brought disgrace upon herself by taking off with a young man. She's partly
right, but what she's too conventional to see is the book's main joke:
Elsie tracks down Leonora -- Leo, as she calls herself -- living in a
houseboat in a London suburb with her lover, a bright and pretty nurse
Elsie's inability to see the pair's relationship for what it was, according
to Lillian Faderman's afterword, was shared by critics of the day. "I could
not quite make out what was up with Leonora," said the critic for the English
newspaper the Spectator. Though had Elsie been shrewder, she might have
been just as confused. Leo and Helen have been together for seven years during
which both have taken male lovers (as did Renault and her lifelong partner,
Julie Mullard, during the initial years of their relationship). Renault wrote
the book partly in response to Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel The
Well of Loneliness, whose dreary title pretty much summed up what she found
so detestable about the book. Neither Leo nor Helen is much affected by guilt
nor by the sense that their sexual tastes should settle down on one side of
the fence or the other.
You can't quite say that things are shaken up by the presence of the book's
two male characters, because in Renault's view, sexuality and all
relationships are in flux to begin with. These men -- Peter, Elsie's young
doctor (who comes visiting at Elsie's suggestion), and the women's neighbor
Joe, a literary novelist whose friendship with Leo is based in the sounding
board each provides the other for their work (Leo makes her living writing
western pulps under the name Tex O'Hara) -- simply careen into the orbit of
these women, and things, however temporarily, rearrange themselves.
The most satirical parts of The Friendly Young Ladies are those having
to do with Elsie and her parents. They are also the cheapest. None of Renault's
observances of Elsie are wrong. She's recognizable as her mother's daughter,
the sort of timid girl who, despite her declared taste for adventure, wants
things to be nice and comprehensible, and who it is easy to imagine will eventually
content herself with secretarial courses and the two-penny lending library before
settling down into a dull, approved marriage. But there's an unbecoming superiority
to the way Renault writes of the moony, mopish Elsie and the bourgeois vulgarity
of her parents that make them convenient and conventional literary slams at
the middle class.
Renault is much more successful with Peter, who prides himself on his
emancipated view. He believes that the compassion he hands out to women, as
easily dispensed as aspirin, makes him something of a cross between a
secular saint and God's gift to the female race. His attempted seductions
of both Leo and Helen are especially funny because, though he scarcely
articulates it, the challenge of impressing his charm upon lesbians strikes
part of his boy brain as a challenge worthy of him.
Like that notion of Peter's, the art and the pleasure of Renault's novel
lies in what is left unsaid. Faderman points out that Renault's awareness
of the limits of what she could have commercially (and probably legally)
gotten away with in the '40s dovetails with her natural tendency away from
the explicit. And Renault's own afterword, written shortly before she died
in 1983, strikes exactly the conservative note Faderman describes. In the
afterword Renault takes a disapproving tone toward gay liberation saying,
"Congregated homosexuals waving banners are really not conducive to a
goodnatured 'Vive la difference!' ... People who do not consider themselves
to be, primarily, human beings amongst their fellow humans, deserve to be
discriminated against, and ought not to make a meal of it." As politics
that's at the very least blinkered. But, as Faderman points out, eschewing
self-pity and refusing to make an issue out of different sexuality may be
very conducive to art.
Renault's refusal to spell out what is plain is a way of treating readers who
don't understand that Leo and Helen are lovers (or ideologues who insist that
they be either lesbian or straight) as unsophisticated party poopers. And her
subtle insistence that sexuality is not always a determined thing is a much
stronger argument for sexual freedom. The Friendly Young Ladies is not
a warm book, but its acerbic charm is refreshingly free of sentimental eyewash.
And someone at Vintage Books has abetted Renault nicely. The cover of this new
edition features Diego Rivera's painting "Natasha Z. Gelman" showing
a sleek redhead in an evening gown posed against a soft explosion of lilies.
Rivera's immersion in sensuality here is worth every political canvas he ever