Clemence Dane's 1917 novel attempts to persuade the reader that lesbianism is inferior to heterosexuality and that single-sex education should be avoided. The former position is not particularly radical for 1917, and while Dane's representation of lesbian relationships might seem unusually frank to 21st century eyes, it is worth remembering that, for many of her readers, nothing sexual would have been imputed to the "friendships" her novel describes, however "unhealthy". The latter position is, of course, informed by the former, and it is lesbianism that is the main target of Dane's critique. Unfortunately for her, she chooses to do this by creating a monster: Clare Hartill, second-in-command to the ageing Headmistress at Utterbridge Girls' School, is manipulative, vain, egotistical and utterly ruthless. She also joins that large group of monstrous characters who are far more interesting than their righteous opponents.
The plot of the novel revolves around Clare's love for Alwynne, a young teacher at the school; Alwynne returns her love, but Alwynne's Aunt Elsbeth is determined that her niece will not dedicate her life to Clare. The women's relationship is complicated by Louise, a young girl that Clare has singled out for attention, and turned into one of her most devoted worshippers as a result. Louise's story and its repercussions will, eventually, bring about the end of Alwynne's regard for Clare.
The narrative wants to condemn Clare, but also needs her to be charismatic and attractive. This sets up a permanent tension between the need to prove Clare to be bad but to also keep the reader's attention on her. Clare is certainly bad and often terribly cruel, but when tragedy strikes, the narrative apportions the blame; Clare is certainly partly responsible, but not - as Alwynne's heterosexual rescuer suggests - wholly so. Roger, who appears in the last third of the novel as Alwynne's suitor, is an inadequate foil for Clare, and in fact they never meet. It is another woman - Elsbeth - who is eventually able to put Clare at a disadvantage, although, as Alison Hennegan's introduction to the Virago edition points out, the end of the novel is very ambiguous about Clare's future.
I found the writing very uneven. There are some fantastic sections, such as Alwynne's vision of a calendar year as a path leading through "a wide country", from the snowy fields of January, through the glades of spring and the stony hill of autumn to the brightly-lit welcoming house of Christmas. The narrative makes frequent excursions into interior monologue, but broken up with ellipsis which makes it jerky and fragmented. Alwynne's scenes with Roger are marked by an arch, artificial style that contrasts unfavourably with the direct and open communication she shares with Clare. The text is also littered with symbolism that reads like a Freudian primer - Roger shows Alwynne a hiding-place produced by splitting open a tussock of grass that is long, like women's hair; Alwynne breaks Clare's bell in a fit of temper; Roger's conquest of Alwynne is achieved in a railway train. The introduction tells us that Dane was famous for her naivety regarding sex, and perhaps this is a symptom of that, but her unconscious mind was certainly working overtime when she selected her metaphors.
While the book is not an easy read for many reasons, it's undoubtedly interesting, anticipating much of the sharpened anxiety of the interwar period about unmarried women and the renewed promotion of marriage as the proper career for girls. The other interesting aspect is the way in which the narrative, and the characters, escape their author's agenda, complicating her meaning in surprising ways. This is less surprising if Dane herself was lesbian, as a book I've just been reading suggests; if this was so, the novel begins to look more like a way to contain and interrogate her own fears and doubts about her sexuality.