It takes courage and skill to write a novel where the central character is thoroughly unlikable, whilst ensuring that the book remains enjoyable, but that’s just what Elizabeth Eliot manages to do in her 1953 story Mrs Martel – and she does it extremely well. Rescued from obscurity by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow (read his original review here), it’s been re-published by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, and is well worth a read.
Mrs Martell (Cathie) is a monster. A beautiful, self-obsessed monster woman will stop at virtually nothing to get what she wants. She’s been brought up in genteel poverty by her mother, who is too scared to try and restrain Cathie in any way whatsoever. Her Aunt Violet pays for her to be educated at a good (but inexpensive) school, where her beauty allows her to hold sway over staff and pupil alike. Aunt Violet is not completely taken in by Cathie, but is not up to the task of making her niece do anything she doesn’t want to do. And Cathie is not a bit grateful to Aunt Violet:
“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”
On leaving school she visits France (which she refers to as being finished), works as a beautician, is married, divorced, inherits Aunt Violet’s money, and sets herself up in a little flat in London, with a maid who comes in each day to do all the things that Cathie doesn’t want to do, like answering the door, cooking, and cleaning. She seems to have few, if any, female friends, and although she has had a string of lovers, the gaps between them are getting longer.
Basically, Cathie is on the lookout for another husband who will provide her with the status and wealth she not only craves, but feels she deserves. She sets her sights on Edward, unhindered by the fact that he is already married – to her distant and much younger cousin Laura. Under the guise of friendship, she sets about undermining Laura’s confidence and sanity, eroding the marriage piece by piece. She’s not bothered about Laura, and never once considers Edward’s feelings, or sees him as a person in his own right: he’s just a means for Cathie to achieve a luxurious lifestyle, and she wants to possess him in the same way she possesses a hat or a pair of shoes that will enhance her beauty and make her more admired.
She works hard at her beauty, and somehow it seems manufactured. There are exercises, and skin creams and potions, and lots of lying down to rest her face. Her hips are always at exactly the right angle, her beautiful legs and neat ankles are displayed to best advantage, and her face is carefully ‘arranged’. I think her beauty is what defines her, it’s how she sees herself, and she believes it gives her the right to have what she wants. Without her beauty she is nothing. For the moment, it seems, her beauty is untarnished, and her charm (mostly) undiminished. We learn that:
“There were evenings when Mrs Martell decked out in snoods and golden earrings appeared to be around thirty, and there were other evenings when she hadn’t tried at all and then she looked thirty-five. Her actual age was thirty-eight. So all the times when Mrs Martell had lain on her bed after luncheon, and all the hours she had spent patting this and that into her face, had after all been well spent.”
And we are told:
“She was still very beautiful. But somehow it wasn’t enough. She deserved something better than this, and optimistically, almost as an idealist, she continued to seek for it; for some deep experience which should be all-satisfying. She had visions, which she managed to see through scudding clouds, of power and fame and of a great love.”
As the book progresses cracks begin to appear in the facade and, as her control slips, her true character becomes more and more apparent. She’s not a feisty ‘bad girl’ getting by on her wits and looks, like Scarlet O’Hara or Becky Sharp. The closest comparison would probably be with Louise in Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance which was published in the same year). Oddly, she is not as worldly and sophisticated as she likes to think – her view of life seems to be gleaned from gossip columns in women’s magazines, and has no connection with her own upbringing. For example, she knows she must get a job on leaving school, but she thinks:
“The job must be the kind of job which ladies took for their entertainment, to fill in the time which might elapse between being presented at court and being married. Flower shops and interior decorators came quite definitely under that heading; mannequins and assistants in beauty parlours were better paid.”
Oh dear, I seem to have spent a lot of time writing about Cathie without mentioning the other characters, but she overshadows them all. Laura is a thoroughly nice, rather shy young lady, who has no idea how to behave in society, enjoys talking to servants and people on trains, and likes possessions that have no value. Edward is a male chauvinist pig who is very aware of his position in society and, quite frankly, he deserves everything he gets. Many of the minor characters make brief appearances, so are not fully developed, but Eliot is very good at skewering the social pretentious and aspirations of the would-be upper classes, who are not quite what what they like us to believe, and there are some very funny moments.