Book Review by Kath R.
Philip Gibbs’ Wikipedia entry details his career as a war correspondent during the First World War and his reluctance to censor his reporting of the war. He agreed to the censorship, but after the war wrote The Realities of War. It appears that he was a prolific writer about the war, of political articles and of novels.
The Reckless Lady is the story of a woman, Helen Fleming, and her two almost grown-up children Sylvia and Stephen. The novel opens in Monte Carlo where the family are staying.
Conversations reveal that they have travelled widely in Europe and Sylvia in particular is fluent in French and Italian, has read European literature and studies European art, but Gibbs ensures we know that they are English.
It soon becomes obvious that Helen is married, but separated from her husband, that the children (aged about 17 or 18) have no memory of their father and that Helen earns a living through gambling in the casinos. Her children are unaware of this.
When Helen makes disastrous losses at roulette, she prepares to leave Monte Carlo and her debts for another European town where no-one knows her. However, her estranged husband, Colonel Fleming appears and offers to pay off the debts, support the family in London and while he lives in his house in the country with his two dependant sisters.
Reluctantly Helen agrees, partly because her children are ashamed of her behaviour and partly because she is running out of places to go.
It is unclear exactly why the marriage broke up; the family were in India and Colonel Fleming spent too much time away from home and Helen took a lover. There is a suggestion that the Colonel was violent before the affair, but there are no details. What is clear, however, is that Colonel Fleming was responsible for ordering the shooting of civilians in the Punjab. The massacre had been reported in the British newspapers and Fleming was shunned by many on his return to England.
They return to London where Sylvia uses her father’s money to spend on clothes. Helen, meantime, asks Colonel Fleming to help her set up a hat shop in Bond Street with her brother Jack, a spendthrift and all round disreputable character. Stephen has a studio paid for by his father and leads a bohemian life.
Sylvia in the meantime meets up with an admirer, Edward Hillier, who had proposed to her in Monte Carlo. He is the son of a furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Jack, Helen’s brother, flees England having swindled money from Helen’s friends and others in a false share deal. Colonel Fleming dies suddenly. Sylvia decides to marry Edward Hillier and move to the United States. Much of the final third of the novel is taken up with Sylvia’s life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which follows a stay in New York. She is overwhelmed by the buildings, the’ mod cons’ and the bustle of New York. In Grand Rapids, she is torn between ‘polite society’ and a more bohemian set and is involved in a social scandal, but which is resolved and she is forgiven.
The themes of the novel are post-war politics and the behaviour of the different classes of men after the war, the changes in the position of the landed classes, the role of women in society, the possible collapse of the British Empire and the possibility of a future way because of the reparations Germany had to pay following World War One. In the novel there are frequent passing references to injured officers returning from the War. He does this be describing their ‘empty sleeves’ or stiff gait. He is very scathing about the ‘layabout former soldiers’.
Gibbs loses no opportunity for his characters to express opinions at length, which at the time, I think would have been wearing to the reader, but which nearly a hundred years on, I found fascinating to read about. Some of the opinions, I think were his, others were those of others.
His opinions, I think, included his dislike of the Liberal Party’s enactment of partition in Ireland, his attitudes to the poor – he thought many were workshy and feckless and would strike at any opportunity. He disliked Ramsey MacDonald and the Labour Party for their support of working people (and for being socialist and lots more besides!). The opinions expressed by the characters made me look up the General Election results from 1918 to 1924 to help me understand the basis of these views.
His attitude to women is fairly sympathetic. Gibbs understands that Helen needs to work. He is sympathetic to Colonel Fleming’s two dependant sisters and their difficulties in returning to civilian life after working as nurses during the war. A couple of times while I was reading the novel, I asked myself,’ could a woman have written this?’ I think the answer could have been ‘yes’, although I think we would have been much clearer about Fleming’s behaviour which lead to Helen’s leaving him if a woman had written the novel.
Gibbs appears very fond of the USA and the Americans. He travelled there after the war. He admires the work ethic and the pride the Americans have in their manufacturing businesses and the philosophy that in order for a country to be great, people have to work hard.
As to the title – is it Helen with her taking of a lover when she was younger, her earning her living from roulette and her setting up the hat shop with her feckless brother? Or is it Sylvia who when she moves to Grand Rapids, Michigan behaves recklessly when she gets involved group of people who are disapproved of by ‘polite society’?
In summary, I think that Philip Gibbs manages to write a good story which explores themes which would have been very relevant at the time it was written. I will read more of his fiction.