Edith Olivier’s first slight little novel; The Love Child is a wonderful, quirky little fantasy. Part dark hearted fairy-tale, it is a story of an obsession born of loneliness.
Agatha Bodenham has lived a quiet, largely solitary life with her mother. When she is thirty-two her mother dies, and Agatha finds herself alone but for the servants. She remembers the friend and great joy of her childhood – Clarissa. Clarissa her imaginary friend with whom she played and had adventures, but who Agatha had to rid herself of at fourteen when her governess mocked her. Now, with loneliness swamping her, Agatha finds she can summon up the image of Clarissa – just as she was all those years ago.
“She was smaller even than Agatha had imagined her, and she looked young for her age, which must have been ten or eleven. Her hair was brushed off her face and tied back with a brown ribbon, a little darker than the hair, which was dappled like the skin of a fawn. Her face was tiny, very pale, and her eyes were dappled brown like her hair. She wore a short white dress of embroidered cambric, and on her feet were the little red shoes which Agatha knew she had always worn.”
At first Clarissa comes just by night, she remains an insubstantial spirit like wraith – and Agatha is able to play with the child of her imagination as she did in childhood. Clarissa brings Agatha great joy and companionship; she is a secret which Agatha hugs to herself. Yet Clarissa begins to develop more substance, and soon Agatha becomes aware, that sometimes, other people can see her.
Agatha takes Clarissa to Brighton – here among people who don’t know her, Agatha can spend several happy weeks with Clarissa. Homesickness calls Agatha home, and she must come up with a way of explaining the presence of Clarissa. In some panic Agatha rashly describes Clarissa as her own love child.
“ ‘A love-child.’ The phrase had surged up from her inner consciousness, and she spoke it without realising what it implied. It did just express what Clarissa truly was to her – the creation of the love of all her being. It was truth, and in face of truth she knew that no one could take the child away, She had saved her.
But at what a cost! Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers, with a right which no law could override.”
Clarissa doesn’t remain a little girl, soon she is seventeen, and still awkward around other people she finds she is happiest staying close to Agatha. However Kitty the rector’s daughter who is the same age as Clarissa and who Agatha and Clarissa have been obliged to entertain over the years, introduces Clarissa to David. David, Clarissa and Agatha go driving and attend picnics, Agatha must always attend, and David becomes increasingly irritated. Agatha is watchful, jealous and terrified that David may take Clarissa from her. David is a dull young man, Clarissa’s irrepressible spirit draws David like a moth to a candle but Agatha is determined to keep Clarissa for herself. Both wish only to possess Clarissa for themselves. There was a moment which reminded me of Rapunzel as David stands below Agatha’s window calling to Clarissa. Agatha spirals off into obsessive, desperation; Clarissa is all that stands between her and the loneliness she fears.
This novella is an absolute joy, one I had meant to read for ages – there are a lot of books on my shelves like that though. I glanced through the frustratingly short Wikipedia entry for Edith Olivier, and see that until he died in 1919; Edith was fairly dominated by her father. In 1927 (the year this novella was first published) Edith’s younger sister died, and so I suppose it is possible to see elements of Edith in the character of Agatha – at least as she is when the story begins.
Bello books are doing a great job bringing books like The Love Child to a new generation of readers, and I am very happy with my little Bello edition – but of course original green Virago collector that I am – I will keep my eyes peeled for an original VMC edition to add to it.