Thursday, June 23, 2011

BiblioBits: Ursula Parrott's Ex-Wife & Susan Howatch's Starbridge Series

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer In "Divorcee," based on Usula Parrott's "Ex-Wife"
I finished Ursula Parrott's Ex-Wife, an interesting Jazz Age novel, if not a masterpiece. 

In 1988 the Plume American Women's Series reissued Ex-Wife, with a fascinating introduction by Francine Prose and afterword by Parrott's son Marc.  Parrott won and lost small fortunes off her novels and women's magazine fiction in the '20s and '30s, according to Prose and Marc Parrott, but also endured blackmail attempts and at forty was accused of smuggling a 23-year-old soldier out of military prison in the rumble seat of her car.  Her novel Ex-Wife, which she wrote between her first and second marriages, was published anonymously in 1929.  It sold 100,000 copies, she was eventually able to claim it under her own name, and it was made into a movie, Divorcee, with Norma Shearer.

Parrott's cool, understated narrative is faintly reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man books (though it is not a mystery).  Parrott's elegant narrator, Patricia, an advertising copywriter and assistant manager, is always poised and always good company in speakeasies, but she is heartsick over the separation from her husband, caused by one infidelity, fictionalized by her to hide the fact that it was with his best friend. Her husband, too, has been unfaithful, but what's good for the gander is not good for the goose.  She muddles through the divorce with the help of her divorced roommate, Lucia.  Real happiness is not necessarily the lot of these ex-wives.

Parts of the novel, as Prose points out,  are almost shocking.  "At moments we feel that Patricia is telling us slightly more than necessary, that some of this is intended to scandalize." Patricia talks so honestly about the lurid making out in the clubs--her husband's kissing "beautiful shoulders" of other women--as if she is expected to accept it.  In a way it reminds me of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

Virago Press, Capuchin Books, The Feminist Press, Any Reprint Press:  publish this book at once, please!  It's a great popular book of its kind.

Coincidentally, at the end of Ex-Wife, Patricia is reading H. G. Wells.  I've been reading him, too.  The book?  The World of William Clissold. Never heard of it.

Susan Howatch's Ultimate Prizes.  I am devouring Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, an excellent series of six pop novels about the Church of England in the 20th century.  

Susan Howatch's early bent was for Gothic novels and family sagas.  In 1980, after she settled in Salisbury, she became interested first in the Salisbury Cathedral and then in Anglican Christianity.  The six resulting novels are set in Starbridge, a fictional Anglican diocese not unlike Salisbury. Although it is not on the level of Trollope's six-book Barsetshire series, perhaps part of the inspiration was Barsetshire. 

The priest/clergyman narrators of Howatch's pageturners are unconventional, highly-sexed, and hubristic.  They have crises, but also find romance.  Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who investigates the much admired Archbishop of Canterbury's unconventional household, is the narrator of the first book, Glamorous Powers.  What he finds out leads to a breakdown and eventually to romance.  In the second book, Glittering Images, Anglican monk Jonathan Darrow, a psychic, is the narrator.  He decides to leave the monastery and undergoes a kind of psychological and psychic transformation.   He also meets a woman.

In Ultimate Prizes, the third in the series, Neville Aysgarth, an Archdeacon, has a similar crisis.  A Yorkshire draper's son who has spent his life "chasing prizes," under the influence of an uncle who took over the family after Neville's father died, he gets everything he wants:  the perfect career, perfect wife, and perfect children.  He insists that all is well, but then meets and falls in love with a rich young woman at a dinner party, Dido. They write letters, supposedly about religion.  

Neville's "perfect" wife, Grace, a very nice woman but exhausted by Neville's social demands,  five children, and the political life in Starbridge, shortly understands that Neville is in love with Dido.  When she dies, Dido becomes his second wife, and all hell breaks loose.  Neville's identity crisis leads to counseling by a monk.  And monks and Anglocatholicism are abhorrent to him; he is strictly a Protestant Church of England clergyman.

The series is fascinating.  I recommend it to anyone who loves a good story:  you don't have to be religious.


Buried In Print said...

But you forgot to tell me how it ends! ::grin:: I need to know if it leaves you with the same feeling that Hall's Well of Loneliness leaves you with at the end. Will I be furious?

And I love it when characters in books are reading the same things you're reading: perfect literary alignment!

Frisbee said...

I've never read Halls' Well of Loneliness! I wonder if it's at Gutenberg...

SPOILER ALERT: I'll tell you how this ends since you're not likely to find it at your public library.:)

After the divorce, Pat eventually gets over it and meets her true love, a very nice reporter (the men are both reporters!), but he is married to a woman--and this is very weird--who wears a mask over half her face because of a car accident (his fault). He sees her every other weekend, and we believe it's just a pro forma marriage. He has a chance to go to Asia--he is deeply bored by his job--but the wife refuses to let him go.

When the wife shows up pregnant at Pat's office and asks her to bow out, Pat is so lovely and well-behaved that she helps WIFE buy a new wardrobe to go to Asia with him (the only way to keep her man, according to Pat) and takes her to an artist who makes WHOLE MASKS to wear on different occasions!

So, wow--masks, good behavior. I was stunned.

Pat ends up married to a man she doesn't love, but he is nice. And there is a flash of a hope that on her trip around the world with him she will run into her TRUE LOVE again.

Morality all ambiguous and I much admire Pat, but could she be real?!