5th May 2003: Thoughts on The Friendly Young Ladies, women and class

Thinking about the lack of options for respectable women and the way giving up respectability and slipping in class so totally wasn’t an option in any circumstances, it makes a great deal more sense of Elsie in Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies. I have always thought Elsie the next thing to pathological, but actually I see now she’s meant to be normal — insensitive, yes, but her axioms are the axioms of the day. I mean her expectation that she will live on her parents and have a dress allowance only, that she will not work, that life is to find a husband, and that life with her parents will be tolerable near a circulating library and with the chance to meet people.

This gives me a new angle on The Friendly Young Ladies, a novel I have read sufficiently often that lying in the bath thinking about it in detail suffices for re-reading it, more’s the pity. Leo’s struggle before meeting Helen is meant to be seen in that light, I think, as well as Elsie. “Young Ladies” in the title is clearly intentional. It’s astonishing how much context can be lost in such a short time, because I expect Renault felt she’d been quite clever, and there I was in a zillion readings seeing Elsie as much worse than she was. (She’s bad enough. But still.)

These people, well, Leo and Joe anyway, knew WWII was coming, and would have gone through it. Joe would have fought, possibly in the US army, but more likely in the British. If they’d gone to the US they’d have come back, I think. Leo would have worked in a factory or some such — unless she had a baby, or even if she did. (Can you see Leo with a baby? They had contraception, Marie Stopes and all that, I think she’d have had the sense to see what an impossible mother she’d have been. Though I don’t know.) Leo might also possibly have been a Wren or similar. She probably would, she’d have wanted to fight and that would have been the closest there was. It’s easy to imagine her in disguise as a man, but by WWII there were too many medical inspections.

Helen would have nursed, of course, and so would Norah, and Peter would have carried on being a doctor. Elsie would have had to be useful, and it would have been the making of her, and afterwards she would take it for granted that she kept on doing that. She’d have whined, because she always whined, she’d have whined on into the fifties about how you couldn’t get servants and money wasn’t worth anything, and she’d have worked in a factory or a cafe if she hadn’t been lucky enough to catch a husband, and I don’t think she would because she was so needy and desperate, and desperation is so very unappealing. Her parents would have been killed in the Blitz, and she’d have felt it was her fault, because they moved to London because of her running away.

Maybe Leo did have children and they’d have had their sensible aunt, Helen, and their dreadful aunt to be endured, who kissed and fussed them, Elsie.

I wish it wasn’t so hard to imagine Leo and Joe living together. Maybe Helen lived with them as well and made sure everyone had clean clothes and that there was dinner. That would work.

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