The Friendly Young Ladies: A Novel

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Vintage Books, 2003 - Fiction - 293 pages
4 Reviews
Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, na ve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.

Mary Renault wrote this delightfully provocative novel in the early 1940s, creating characters that are lighthearted, charming, and free-spirited partly in answer to the despair characteristic of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness or Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. The result is a witty and stylish story that offers exceptional insight into the world of upcoming writers and artists of in 1930s London, chronicling their rejection of society’s established sexual mores and their heroic pursuits of art and life.

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User Review  - atreic - LibraryThing

I read this book because I was reading reviews of the Well of Loneliness, and it was mentioned. In fact, the comment was something like 'oh God, the Well of Loneliness, it's so up itself and tortured ... Read full review

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User Review  - themulhern - LibraryThing

The writing is excellent which makes the story effective. The young Elsie is a very sad character who doesn't have much grasp of the reality that everybody else seems to understand so well, but their ... Read full review

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About the author (2003)


Very quietly and carefully, hardly moving her thin young neck and round shoulders, Elsie looked round the room, first at the french windows into the garden, then at the door, measuring distances. Her calculations were instinctive, like those of a mouse; she had been making them since she could crawl. There was hardly any need to look this time; the way to the door lay flat across her father''s line of vision. He was saying, "I should have supposed it was obvious to the meanest intelligence--almost anywhere, in fact, outside this household----"

Her parents'' chairs were drawn up to the fire, for it was a chilly evening in March, and the Lane family always observed, punctiliously, the routine of domestic comfort. Elsie had begun her reputation for eccentricity at school by remarking suddenly, "I do think radiators are nice." She thought of radiators as she edged the pouffe on which she was sitting slowly backward, ready for a traverse behind her mother''s chair to the french window.

As she moved, she remembered that her sister Leonora, in the dimly-remembered days when she lived at home, used to cross the room on occasions like this with three flying strides, slam the door, and be half-way down to the beach before there was time to say anything. Elsie had been, and still was, as incapable of following her example as she would have been of soaring through the air. She had always found herself left behind, to hear the comments and the retorts, while Leo had already joined Ted and Albert from the coastguard cottages, and would be looking for jetsam in the caves. Elsie had not envied her Ted and Albert--she agreed with her mother in thinking them very rough and unsuitable--and she rarely remembered now to envy her her technique, it was so long ago. She was free to use her own methods; and Leo, once so terrifyingly apt to heap a family fracas with fresh fuel, was never mentioned at all. Elsie herself hardly ever thought of her.

Her mother was saying, ". . . be spoken to like this in my own house." It was now or never, before she noticed Elsie and added, "in front of my own child," after which it would be too late. Very softly and smoothly, with as much care as one might use to keep a lover''s sleep unbroken, she closed her book, tucked it under her arm, and slid upright on her long schoolgirl''s legs with their thick dragged stockings and sea-stained shoes. She was a dim, unobtrusive girl. One might conjecture that she had been afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her. She had acquired protective colouring which amounted almost to invisibility; almost, but not quite.

"Now," said her mother indignantly, but also with the air of one who scores a point, "see what you''ve done, Arthur, with your shouting and your bad temper. Driven poor little Elsie out of the house. And she''s hardly better yet from that bad cold."

Her father had been holding The Times, his observations lobbing over the top of it like mortar-canisters over a parapet. Now he suddenly dashed it down on his knee. Thick newsprint can make a dramatic noise. Elsie stood with her fingers contracted round the door-knob: her adolescent stoop exaggerated itself into an idiot slump; her vague, half-formed features grew dull and furtive. She could feel it happening, the familiar cycle. Guilt and shame made her stomach sink. She did not reject them, any more than the young African repudiates a tabu he has broken by accident in the dark. For a moment an etiolated shoot of personality stirred in her and wondered, "What could I have done that would have been right?" but lacked vitality enough to attempt an answer. It had all happened a hundred times before. She cringed, and stared at the red Turkey carpet.

"This," shouted her father, "passes everything." He raised his eyes, meeting those of a sepia Burne-Jones on the opposite wall a very thin lady with a lily, whose evident misery seemed to Elsie a reflection of her own. "Isn''t it enough that my domestic life should be made a purgatory of nagging, without having these scenes of martyrdom staged for my benefit?" He flung The Times to the floor; Elsie gazed dully at a heading about something, or somebody, leaving the League, while a dangling thread of her mind wondered whether it referred to Geneva or football.

"Elsie," said her father, "come here."

Letting go of the door-knob reluctantly, as if it were a source of protection, Elsie took a dragging step into the room.

"Next time your mother puts you up to something of this kind, just think it over for a minute. That''s all your father asks of you. I don''t think it''s a great deal, do you? I don''t think it''s altogether unreasonable? Just ask yourself what would happen if your father, in spite of being treated like a pariah in his own home--a pariah," he repeated (the word was a new acquisition) "weren''t willing in spite of everything to work for you and give you your food and your clothes and your pocket-money? Just think about that for a moment, and suggest to your mother that she does the same."

Elsie had left school a year ago, after failing in the School Certificate Examination. The mistresses, one after another, had told her that her homework was thoughtless and showed no signs of concentration at all, and had pointed out what a disappointment this must be to her parents; a prophecy regularly fulfilled when her reports came through. All this accumulated guilt formed a steady reserve, ready to add itself to the guilt of any given moment. Where would she be, indeed? Hypnotized, she pictured herself trudging through the rain into the gates of a large, dark factory, wearing a man''s cloth cap, or maybe a shawl. The factory was drawn from imagination; her travels had been few.

"Well, Elsie?" said her father.

When things of this sort happened, if there was time to see them coming beforehand, Elsie was accustomed to pray, "Please, God, don''t let them ask me to say anything." Her tongue seemed to be swelling inside her mouth. Perhaps, even now, if she waited a moment . . .

"Arthur," cried her mother, "how can you browbeat the poor child like this? It isn''t my fault she can''t bear to be in the same room with you. Never mind, darling; to-morrow morning when your father goes out we''ll do something nice all by ourselves."

Her mother''s voice trembled. Elsie edged to the door-knob, and clutched it again. If only she had said something in time. She could not think what, but there must have been something. She had made her father angry, and now she had made her mother cry.

"This attitude," said her father, "is just what I expected. This is the kind of pernicious malice I see going on every day. Don''t be surprised when it bears fruit. We already have one daughter outside the pale of decent society. If a second finds her way into the demi-monde, believe me, it won''t astonish me."

"Arthur!" Her mother''s voice shrank to a kind of whispering scream. "How can you be so wicked? Saying such a thing in front of a young girl." She rose, clutching her knitting; several stitches dropped off the needle and began to run, which, to Elsie, seemed somehow to make everything more terrifying. She began to sob. "If only one of my children had been a boy. He wouldn''t have stood by to see his mother insulted in her own home."

"If I''d had a son," shouted her father, "I shouldn''t be subjected day by day to this petty conspiracy of women."

A cold moistness was making Elsie''s hand stick to the knob. Her memory had enhanced the horror of the moment with a recollection of the worst thing that had ever happened at home. It must have been quite nine years ago, but it seemed like yesterday. Elsie herself, small enough then to hide sometimes, had crawled just in time under the table; but Leo had been standing in exactly the same spot where her sister stood now. She had been about Elsie''s own age; but suddenly, as Elsie peeped, her familiar thin brown face and dark tumbled hair had looked different, and one had had the feeling that a third grown-up, more frightening than either of the others, had come into the room. With her feet apart, and her fists pushed down into her shabby tweed pockets, she had said, unbelievably, "If I were a man I wouldn''t be here. And I bloody well wish I were." A silence had followed, beside which the preceding storm had seemed like child''s play; and in the silence, Leo had walked out, without even slamming the door.

Merely to think of it made the present seem almost ordinary.

Then her father said, "That will do, Elsie. You had better run away now," in the voice of one wronged beyond the degree to which words can give relief; and, though it was a method of closing discussions which he not infrequently employed, Elsie had a feeling that he remembered too. Since there was always a possibility that he might even yet follow it with "But remember, before you go . . ." she went instantly, negotiating the door without grace, but with the most efficient silence and speed, and not forgetting to turn the handle firmly, because once she had been ordered back to do it, and, becoming on the strength of this a theme of renewed debate, had had to remain for another quarter of an hour.

Before she was half-way along the passage she could hear their voices rising again, and this decided her against going upstairs to get her coat. One day she had done this, to be met on her way down by her mother, who had left the room in the interval and was anxious to tell her why. Reflecting on this, Elsie felt herself to be unnatural, heartless and wicked: but she was used to feeling inferior and inadequate and, indeed, expected it.

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