Last week I told you all about my new, old book purchases, one of which was The Indian Woman by Diana Gardner. It was Diana Gardner’s only published novel, and one about which I could find no information or reviews. It is not a book easy to find either I don’t think.
I feel almost a greater responsibility reviewing a book so few other people will know much about – neither wishing to undersell or over egg so to speak. When I read Diana Gardner’s short stories last year – I was captured by her beautiful writing, and her storytelling. There is subtlety, and clever little twists in those stories, in a couple of them she explored the oddness of relationships between people and destructive natures, which is a major theme of this novel. Though the relationship at the centre of this novel is far darker and more destructive than any in that collection of stories.
Gyles Ayscough, a north country squire who spent a few years serving with the Army in India returns to England and marries Sybil Ludlam, the daughter of a neighbour. A few years earlier, before going to India, Gyles had been invited to dinner at the Ludlam’s where he met all five Ludlam sisters, Sybil the fourth, only seventeen, almost immediately forgets him. Five or six years later, Gyles returns, India behind him, he is buying up land, and seeking a wife. Things have changed in the Ludlam household in the years since Gyles was there before, their mother dead, two sisters have married and gone abroad, one sister tragically killed in a freak accident, leaving only the eldest Zena, and Sybil at home with their ageing father. Everyone expects Gyles to marry Zena – including Zena herself, so it’s a bolt from the blue when Gyles asks for Sybil’s hand.
“Afterwards she went to her room and sat at her dressing-table. The sun was on the far side of the house, but she could see, through the window, its rich glow on the hill. She looked at herself in the glass. Today her soft hair looked vaguely, mysteriously dusty – like that beautiful, evocative, plaited hair one sometimes sees in Victorian lockets. Her skin, pale and soft, had never seemed so clear and glowing. Perhaps, in her own way, she was pretty? – she ruminated. Had Gyles Ayscough thought of her, then?”
Sybil is slight, quiet and obedient, an innocent, an old-fashioned kind of young woman, and people ask what it is the handsome squire sees in her. It is 1920, the world is changing after the First World War, but Sybil isn’t the kind of young woman ready for change, seeming at times a little Victorian in her fragility.
We soon realise that Sybil’s quiet fragility is the very reason Gyles chose Sybil over Zena, what Gyles wanted was wife who would be his idea of a wife, and live quietly in the country, with little society and few interruptions. We sense of course that there is something wrong with Gyles, he’s moody and reserved, speaking little of his past. At Mountfield; Gyles’s large country estate, he and Sybil slip into a contented quiet life, and Sybil find herself very happy with her life, learning to run a large house and finding great joy in her garden flowers. Gyles is anxious for a child, and in time, a son is born, and everything seems perfect, for a time. Only when their child dies, everything changes and the truths that Gyles has been hiding come to the surface.
Gyles’s behaviour becomes stranger, he retreats further from his grief-stricken wife, leaving her alone for longer and longer periods. Sybil discovers Gyles keeps a small sitting room/gun room in a distant part of his large house where he spends many hours away from her. In the room; is a trunk full of Indian women’s clothes, Gyles is furious she has discovered them, and Sybil is puzzled at what it all could mean.
Years before, while in India, Gyles suffered a humiliation at the hands of an Indian Woman, a woman, whose presence he was only in for a few moments, but who he has sworn vengeance upon ever since. His chauffeur Crayke, knows something of what happened in India – and over the course of the next few years protects his master from local gossips – when tongues start wagging about the Ayscoughs. What the gossips can’t begin to imagine, is that Gyles has become so obsessed and disturbed by that incident in India that he has begun to act out his revenge on his fragile wife. Never actually raising a hand to Sybil he forces her to dress up in the Indian clothes, posing for hours, heaping insults upon her, insults meant for someone else. It is an act of humiliation, such as he himself once suffered – Gyles wants to break the Indian woman, but instead he only breaks his delicate, loyal wife.
“…Gyles, standing against the mantelpiece – he sometimes leaned with the whole of his broad back against it, keeping the heat from the room – could mock at her awkwardness, undermine her confidence. His laugh was rasping and high, almost inhuman -sometimes she looked over to him quickly, imagining that a stranger, or some wild person had joined them in the room – and his dark eyes were dark, impervious to her feelings.”
Gyles’s domination and cruelty is bizarre, what makes it interesting is the psychology, Gardner demonstrates how little by little a spirit is broken, small acts of cruelty which might seem rather silly (especially to a modern reader) have an enormous effect upon Sybil, who seems unable to help herself.
With her sister, living an independent life in Scarborough, Sybil’s only friend is Mr Martineau the ageing local vicar, who Sybil realises she is unable to speak to about the behaviour of her husband toward her. Sybil needs help, deep down she realises her husband is destroying her. However, Gyles is sly, manipulative and quick thinking, and when his secrets are threatened he moves himself and Sibyl away, to another large country house, where no one knows them. The years pass, the world is changing, more cars on the roads, fashions and attitudes changing, but Sybil remains locked inside a marriage she feels it would be wrong for her to try and escape, in time she is simply incapable of it.
The Indian Woman, while lacking the perfection of The Woman Novelist and other stories, is a very good novel, it is utterly gripping and so compelling I could barely put it down. So, I certainly don’t feel I wasted my money, and I really wish that Diana Gardner had written a lot more.