Reading 1959: A Travelling Woman

A Travelling Woman.

I picked up John Wain’s A Travelling Woman purely because I liked the cover of the Penguin paperback edition from 1963, with an illustration by Adrian Bailey, and because it was first published in 1959.

It tells the story of George Links, a selfish commuter-town manchild who is unhappy in his marriage and job, and obsessed with the service of his own pleasure.

When his wife, Janet, pushes him to see a therapist in London, his drinking companion, Captax, points out that this provides the perfect opportunity to spend some time away from home indulging the pursuit of other women.

Captax directs him towards the Cowleys who have an attic room they let to lodgers, and so Links meets Ruth, a sad woman whose husband, Edward, is a philosopher lost in grappling with the question of religious faith. Links falls in love with Ruth and has a brief affair with her which not only revives his mood but also his marriage. Until, inevitably, it all falls apart.

For the first hundred pages or so, I frankly disliked this book. It seemed glib and seedy – a portrayal of a world in which men take women, and where women are either prizes or puzzles, but not quite people. It’s true that Wain goes out of his way to make George Links unlikable – he is pedantic about grammar, short-tempered, and thick-headed; and Ruth tells him to his face that she doesn’t like him, more than once. Nonetheless, we spend most of the book in his head, while Captax and others reassure him in his betrayal of his wife. Like playing a first-person rotten bastard simulator on the PS4.

But the synopsis on the back of the Penguin paperback has it right when it says “what began as light-hearted Restoration comedy in modern dress becomes a grim tragedy of emotional maturity”. One by one, the opportunities for happy endings are cut off: Links loses his wife, then Ruth, and ends up living in a seedy hotel; Captax find his heart, but then has it broken within a fortnight; Evan and Barbara Bone, another unhappy couple on the periphery of the plot, break up, too.

Only the Cowleys seem to emerge intact, perhaps because they have a son, Teddy, and maybe because they’ve already given up on the idea of romance when the book begins.

The book surges in strength when the focus shifts from George Links to Janet Links – when we see how his behaviour breaks her. The fact that he shows her renewed affection and gives her the impression that the marriage is revived only makes its sudden collapse all the more humiliating.

Janet Links has her romantic idealism shattered and becomes a harder, meaner person, but perhaps more resilient. Captax experiences love and realises the true price of meddling in other people’s marriages.

The lesson George Links learns is that he is not, after all, the centre of the universe – that other people have inner lives, desires and feelings, too. Which makes me wonder if this is, in a sense, a portrait of the psychopathic tendencies of many half-formed young men. One odd interlude, with that in mind, which is thrown away in a paragraph or two, is the suggestion that George is attracted to Ruth and Edward Cowley’s young son, Teddy, because he is in love with the child’s mother and admires his father. What a dark twist that would have been for 1959.

Reading 1959: Memento Mori

Cover of Memento Mori

Confession: this is the first Muriel Spark I’ve ever read, and I don’t know anything about her except what I gleaned from the brief bio in the back of the book, and a vague sense that she’s Important.

Memento Mori tells the story of an interconnected group of Londoners, most in their seventies and eighties – novelists, poets, theatrical types, academics, and their resentful servants and children.

The twin engines of the plot are, first, a series of anonymous phone calls in which, one after another, the characters are told, “Remember you must die”; and, secondly, a dark tale of wills, infidelity and blackmail.

At times, there are echoes of Agatha Christie, but without the familiar structure, and of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, both specialists in drawing suspense from fibs, foibles and fading sanity.

My favourite characters are Godfrey, a selfish octogenarian whose failure in life is masked by upper class entitlement, and Mrs Pettigrew, the sinister 73-year-old housekeeper who exploits him. Within hours of arriving to takeover the running of the home Godfrey shares with his senile wife, Charmian, Mrs Pettigrew is showing her stocking-tops to Godfrey in exchange for pound notes. Soon after, creeping around the house making copies of keys, she has ferreted out his every secret and is pressuring him to change his will in her favour.

As someone who spent 30+ years immersed in crime fiction and thrillers, I’ll admit to feeling a prickle of irritation that the loose-end of the phone calls isn’t wrapped up. But once I’d accepted the most likely answer – the voice on the line, which sounds different to each recipient, might be the Grim Reaper himself – I started to file this alongside Robert Aickman, and felt happier.

Does it say much about 1959? I don’t think so. Class structures aside, the reflections on growing old and the weird mutations of very long relationships, seem utterly timeless.

But, still, it’s a funny, emotionally truthful, acidic little book that I’m delighted to have been pushed towards by this project of mine.