Friday, 29 July 2011

Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie's comic novel takes for its theme the complicated pairings, separations and new alliances among a group of more or less lesbian women on Capri (renamed Sirene in the book) at the end of the First World War.  His protagonist is the young and beautiful Rosalba Donsante, whose pleasure it is to absorb admiration, capture hearts, and break up established couples.  Rosalba is adored by the English Rory (short for Aurora) Freemantle, who is rich and decidedly masculine in appearance, with a "hispid chin"; Rosalba will take a good deal of advantage of Rory during her stays on Sirene.  Even the most snobbish and prudish people eventually succumb to her charms, but can Rosalba make a conquest of the celebrated composer Olimpia Leigh when she visits the island?

Published in 1928, a month after The Well of Loneliness, Mackenzie's book was spared the attentions of Sunday Express leader writers and the Home Office, despite its remarkably candid depictions of lesbian characters.  This is probably partly due to its original publication in a limited edition, and partly due to the tone of the book. The narrative voice is highly satirical, there is no suggestion that any of these women are martyred by society or their sexuality, and no serious claim for an equal place in the world for the invert; both Rory and Olimpia Leigh express the view that homosexuals have reached a higher plane of existence, but this is plainly presented as satire.  Most of Mackenzie's characters are ridiculous and he treats them with a highly ironic and slightly contemptuous manner; many of them are poseuses, asserting sexual deviance for attention only.  Several of them are also drawn from life; Olimpia Leigh is based on the painter Romaine Brooks, who was part of the Capri circle when Mackenzie lived there; Rory draws strongly on Radclyffe Hall, who was not a Capri resident but was clearly irresistible as a character, and a plainly lesbian one at that; and Rosalba is based on Mimi Franchetti, a rich Venetian who, according to Who's who in gay and lesbian history, was "stupendously egocentric, unable to keep from interfering in any relationship between two other women [...] an untameable femme fatale" (59).  

So the book is very interesting in terms of lesbian representation in fiction, and in historical terms, and it provides access to some excellent gossip.  But is it any good?  The narrative is highly ironic and mocking, and it can be very funny.  There are some lyrical descriptions of the beauties of Capri/Sirene.  But the story and structure are repetitive; Rosalba's sequential romantic conquests are followed by quarrels and usually a farcical climax of some sort, ending with the final chaotic party at Rory's clifftop villa.  There are also a number of plot strands that start up, but go nowhere, such as the burglary at Olimpia's house; these feel like padding in a fairly long book.  Some of the humour, for me, borders on misogyny.  On the whole I found this more interesting than enjoyable - and occasionally hard work, which for a book designed as a frivolous confection is disappointing.

1 comment:

  1. I have a soft spot for Mackenzie and look out for his books, this is one I'd like to read but mostly for the background colour and because I think I've seen it mentioned a few times now.