Book review by George S. This month at the Popular Fiction reading group we have been exploring the steamy world of Romance, by looking at early Mills and Boon novels. I read a book by one of the publishing house’s most successful writers – Denise Robins.
Women Who Seek is an odd title for this book, since it’s essentially about just one woman. She does some seeking, but mostly things come to her rather by chance. After which she does less seeking than yearning and suffering.
Her name is Eve – a significant name since the book tells us that ‘in this girl the “eternal Eve” was strongly developed’. She is a young woman whose passions and appetite for life put her at odds with her conventional parents; she feels that there must be more to life than their dull existence at Haywards Heath.
For excitement she looks to a friend, Poppy, who mixes with bohemians and artists in London. Eve does not feel quite at ease with these people, and she is uncomfortable with her friend’s slapdash morality. She needs more, and through Poppy, she meets Lawrence, an older man with experience of the world, on leave from his work in Malaya. Denise Robins makes him above all a physical presence:
but all the evening she had taken stock of him; knew so many little intimate details about him; the way his hair grew, low on the forehead, dark and smooth, brushed straight back; the curious contrast of the light-grey eyes, narrowly set in the thin brown face. Ugly and fascinating.
Eve’s feelings are complicated:
Was she truly, sincerely in love with him? She did not know. She only knew that he was what she wanted – a stronger personality than her own. He could influence her, dominate her. In the grip of acute sex-emotion she wanted to be dominated.
She wants him sexually, and offers herself to him, but, though he finds her attractive, he decently refuses to take advantage of her, and heads back to the East.
Denise Robins presents Eve’s sexual longing very frankly and without condemning it. But the theme of the novel is the conflict between sexual desire on the one hand, and the conventions of society and morality on the other, and the case for not giving in to your feelings is put equally strongly.
On the rebound from Lawrence Eve meets Michael, a man who is the embodiment of decency, He is a doctor, specialising in the care of children; he is pleasant, personable and kind, and Eve persuades herself that she loves him, even though he does not give her the thrill that she got from the physicality of Lawrence. Things begin to go wrong on the honeymoon, where she realises that the downside of his niceness is sexual inexperience.
He was almost as shy as she was. It was a new and wonderful experience to Michael Graham, this sweet intimacy of sharing a bedroom with a woman.
We are told that ‘At the age of twenty-seven, he was still extraordinarily ignorant of sex as a personal experience, whilst possessing all the technical knowledge necessary to his profession.’
As they go to bed, James switches off the electric light, which she is sure Lawrence would never have done.
After a couple of years she is deeply unsatisfied in her marriage, even though her husband is caring, considerate and decent. He is skilled as a doctor, but he has no interest in the music or ideas that excite her. And he can’t dance. Their sex life becomes an ordeal:
She, on her part, had reached the pitch where passion from Michael was more than a bore – positively unwelcomed. But she accepted it without definite objection because it all seemed part of her duty, and she was still a dutiful, if no longer a loving, wife. Michael, in his sheer simplicity, took it for granted that, because she allowed his caresses, she still wanted them.
Eve longs to be thrilled, and when Michael, now a specialist in London, gets a new young assistant, she is attracted to him. Nick is lively, instinctive and funny. The two fall in love.
This is the crux of the novel, and Denise Robins gives us what every reader of romantic novels wants, intense desire made stronger still by the fact that it cannot be consummated. In this case, I think, she plays fair with the reader. She presents the sexual desire frankly, but she also makes very clear the social and moral objection to Eve and Nick having an affair. They are both very conscious of how much it would hurt Michael, whom they both admire as a good man. They also both know that divorce would ruin both of them socially. They try very hard to be principled, and in the end they allow themselves one experience of passion before giving each other up.
The consulting-room was plunged in shadow. In the dim light he saw Eve, arms stretched above her head, ecstatic young face tilted back, eyes shut. He thought she was like some pagan priestess, offering herself to the gods. He walked back to her and took her in his arms.
Eve goes back to her dull life with Michael, but Nick still works with him, and Denise Robins makes us share Eve’s sexual frustration:
Seeing Nick at intervals, never really alone, so near, so near and desirable, yet so very far removed from her, hurt her frantically.
Then, in what is something of a novelist’s contrivance, Nick dies, through an accident. Deeply upset, Eve confesses everything to Michael. He is deeply hurt, but still wants her to be his wife. There is a painful and convincing scene as they talk through their situation. The book ends rather well, with both determined to make a success of what is left of their marriage:
Out of the wreckage, Michael was left to her – Michael, to help and to go on being kind. And, because it was impossible for either of them to alter things fundamentally, he would probably go on irritating her and leaving her dissatisfied. And she would never be as good a wife as he deserved.
The novel has faults – Robins maybe explains too much rather than letting the reader discover for himself or herself – but I think it’s rather good. It is certainly very readable, and it does tackle head on what must be a very common problem (and commoner in those days when divorce was almost an impossibility) – a woman married to a man who does not satisfy her sexual needs. As a novelist, she plays fair, making us aware of Eve’s passion, but also of the moral cost of betraying a good man. Some romances are just indulgence in fantasy. The 1929 female reader of this one is being made to think as well as to fantasize.
Romantic fiction is generally a despised genre. Denise Robins is not the kind of woman writer who will be reprinted by Virago or Persephone. Yet in this novel at least she shows herself to be a novelist who can take the kind of problem that must have been very real to many of her readers, and dramatise the issue grippingly, in a way that does not avoid its difficulties.