The Empty Promise of Sundays



Take It to Heart by Kathleen Farrell (Rupert Hart Davis)

If Kathleen Farrell's first novel, Mistletoe Malice, was a dissection of the dreaded and dreadful family Christmas, her second, Take It To Heart (1953), was a none-too-flattering stab at the motivations and mechanics of love. Hers was not Valentines and flowers, nor the happy-ever-after appropriation of feelings. It is a world driven by need, insecurity, and the wish for control. Love is a condition, but is rarely conditional. A myriad of impulses, far removed from sententious versions of the real, in which she drafts a series of relationships, none of which could be described as fair, balanced, or emotionally genuine, but which drive their perpetrators to distraction and despair.

It is a book about love that has little of that emotion at its heart, which may have been a spoonful too devoid of sweetness for a 1950s readership desirous of reassurance and comfort, and account for its present status of obscurity. Victoria is young, intense, analytical, and demanding, but is just as capable of undermining her needs and desires by picking at scabs imaginary or real. She is in love with the diffident and remote Saul, a minor painter, a decidedly mundane lover, and a manipulative soul who is determined to take from the world but return nothing, or as little as he possibly can. Distant enough to be appear enigmatic, he embodies how people fill a vacuum with what they'd like to think was there. A man who sees no problem in the occasional act of congress with his married neighbor Jenny, unhappy about her gradual slide towards middle age in a dull marriage of convenience, or his maintaining a blurred boundaries friendship with David, a shrewd but edgy character whose love for Saul will never provide the inconvenience of a declaration, although it is never far from the surface of things.

Saul plays his girlfriend and his best friend off in a strange hybrid of chess and snakes and ladders. He's too self-absorbed to commit to anything, let alone anyone; even his art seems a neglected mistress. Those who provide him with concerned admiration -- in the hope of scant crumbs of recognition from their object of affection -- go largely unrewarded and remain permanently dissatisfied. The proceedings are distantly watched by Victoria's parents Francis, disabled by illness, and Claire, the woman he married when she was young enough to be molded to suit his requirements for the appearance of a near-perfect wife. Marooned in their large house in the country, they try to divine their daughter's life in London, concerned that she is willful, unhappy, and adrift in the metropolis. Their meeting with Saul does little to placate their anxieties, and Francis fills his days by coming up with increasingly pointless projects for the house and its surroundings, oblivious to the frustration his plans evoke in his wife.

It has been suggested by friends that they are a portrait of Farrell's own parents, and Victoria has a certain number of traits that indeed her creator possessed, but as fiction is the product of living beings, that shouldn't come as any sort of a surprise. In her strange novel of intense detachment, Farrell applies a laser-like dissection of her characters' actions, second-guessing the outcomes of their games while leaving them high and dry. They are permitted little privacy, and although redeemed, are not entirely likeable, but not sufficiently disagreeable to be disliked. Their motives seem decidedly modern, despite the lack of computers, the absence of internet connections, their reliance on the telephone, and a constant necessity for cigarettes. If we feel for them, it is precisely because the reader recognizes an aspect of self in the largely unsatisfactory nature of their lives. That makes it a mirror of reflections one might prefer to glance aside from. The boredom and uncertainty of Sundays figured as strongly in lives then as it does now.

As it ends the book offers no palliative solutions, only the resignation that experience provides. The marriage of Francis and Claire, although flawed, is a perfect example of what a sense of feeling trapped and the act of perseverance can attain. Love is product of effort as much as it is one of romance. Claire is at the end provided with the freedom to begin afresh, so despite such precisely shattered illusions, Farrell leaves the door unlocked with the permission of progress, and that initially unwanted knowledge one harvests from mistakes. Her take on human nature remains modern because her honesty is universal in any era, but as such it will continue to remain, only discreetly acceptable.

Sixty years on she delivers a firm but lasting slap to the face. A shock delivered with sufficient force by a tiny hand, whose nails were, even in advanced old age, and crippled with arthritis, always perfectly polished.