Monday, 13 February 2012

The Island by Naomi Royde-Smith

It was possibly a mistake to pick this up after Henry Green since this 1930 novel is decidedly heavy on the exposition, avoiding subtle indicators of character or tone in favour of huge symbols and signs that direct the reader firmly towards full understanding of Naomi Royde-Smith's vision.   The novel is subtitled A Love Story, and its protagonist is the orphaned Myfanwy Hughes, known as Goosey.  Living with her aunt and uncle on a farm in North Wales, she falls in love with pretty, sophisticated and rather amoral Flossie Priestman, known to Goosey as Almond.  Flossie/Almond likes Goosey's attention more than she likes Goosey herself, and after she marries, Goosey is rather glad to see the back of her.  Goosey moves to the seaside town of Rockhead with another aunt, a milliner, who has taken her on as apprentice; marriage to the local draper becomes a possibility.  But Almond, a disruptive force, runs in and out of Goosey's life, leaving her husband and returning to him, but always keeping Goosey's devotion at a rolling boil. Goosey eventually, comes to see Almond as the person who has led her into a life of irredeemable sin, leading to a permanent breach between them and the decline of Goosey's rather tenuous hold on sanity.

This book was written at the end of 1929 and published in 1930, and it reads rather like a response to, and repudiation of,  Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness.  In its way, it is as frank as Hall's book;  if you are thinking that the Well is not particularly explicit you are probably right, but reading dozens of interwar books about lesbianism has warped my perspective. However, while The Island accepts notions of lesbian identity, and - interestingly - explores the way these are constructed by mainstream society, the conclusion of the book is the antithesis of the Well.  Stephen Gordon prays to her God for a right to live in her own way; Goosey sets herself against her God among the forces of the damned.  The only thing worse than being a lesbian in most interwar novels on this theme is being bisexual: Almond sits alongside Angela Crossby from the Well as a classic fictional bisexual stereotype, manipulative, duplicitous and self-interested.  She retreats into heterosexual respectability while poor Goosey retreats into madness. 

A lot of this book is really quite silly - apparently, you can become a lesbian through being snubbed by a man riding a horse across a marsh - and the narrative's attitude to its characters is often ambivalent.  Goosey is both pitied and blamed for her fate.  Like Radclyffe Hall's novel, it's also terribly earnest; although there are elements of the arch comedy that I enjoyed in The Tortoiseshell Cat, these sit awkwardly with the tragedy of Goosey's life. The writing is also quite variable in quality.  However, it is also interesting, mostly because it looks at Goosey and Almond's relationship in its context, showing the reactions of those around them,   Compared to other similar characters, Goosey and Almond are rooted in ordinary life, working, marrying, raising children; they are not rich, cultured or creative.  Royde-Smith also opens up the question of how much we should try to help the bewildered and lost when we meet them, of whether there is a wider responsibility for Goosey's despair.

The novel has been out of print for years, but second-hand copies are not that expensive.

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