Tuesday, 10 May 2011

To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

For what is quite a short book, To Bed with Grand Music packs one hell of a punch. The tone of the book is set from the striking first sentence;

“Graham and Deborah Robertson lay in bed together and tried to say goodbye to each other”

Set during WWII, Graham is being posted to Cairo, all be it to a fairly cushy office job, and Deborah is being left behind in the country to look after their child and home. On this last evening together, Deborah promises complete fidelity, yet Graham will not be drawn into such a commitment, and will only go so far as to say that he will not fall in love with another woman, therefore ensuring his emotional fidelity to Deborah. Deborah however is not really the maternal type, and the limited opportunities of life in a village with her child soon begin to take their toll on her. With a gentle nudge from her mother, she decides that a job would be the right thing for her, and taking the bull by the horns, she finds one in London, moves in with an old college friend and leaves her son in the care of her housekeeper for the week, returning only at weekends to spend time with Timmy.

On her first exploratory visit to London, Deborah immediately compromised the vow of fidelity she made to Graham, leaving the next morning disgusted with herself and determined to stay at home and be a good wife and mother and wait for Graham to return. However, when a job almost lands in her lap, it doesn’t take long for Deborah to justify returning to London, even managing to use Timmy’s well being as justification for the necessity for her to go.

“Then, she said, there’s the question of Timmy. I rather think ones got to take the long view. Of course it would be nicer for him, and for me too, to stay together, but one’s got to consider what’s best for him, not what’s nicest. It’s no good bringing him up to a comfortable dependent security that certainly doesn’t exist nowadays and isn’t likely to in the world he’ll grow up in. Surely, however much it may hurt me, I owe it to my child to make him strong enough to face all knocks of life rather than to protect him against them?”

Justifying her actions, usually only moments after she has stated how wrong they are, is something Deborah makes a bit of a habit of throughout her time in London. At first, she does make an effort to stay away from all forms of socialising, rebutting all attempts by her socialite flatmate to include her in her partying, but it is not long before she is involved in a relationship with an American officer, who is also married, but has promised his wife he will only philander with someone he respects as much as her. From this point Deborah moves from man to man, soon getting to a point where she is never without a lover, even asking one of her beaus to teach her how to be a good mistress, with which he duly obliges.

Deborah is the sole focus of this book character wise, as Graham departs in the first few pages, and is just the absent husband all the way through the novel. And it left me in a bit of a quandary about my reaction to her. I honestly have to say I didn’t like Deborah very much. All the justification and the seemingly materialistic concerns which led to her descent into promiscuity did not compel her to me very much at all. Obviously, this book is set in a different time, when it was very much the norm that women married and stayed faithful, yet men seemed to have to promise no such thing. It was not expected of them. I do feel I can understand Deborah’s frustrations with the restrictions on her life, particularly since they are restrictions that Graham, from his letters, does not seem to be suffering. For more than half of the book, I did feel like I could sympathise with her plight, although not empathise, yet there came a point where within a couple of pages she composes a letter to her husband requesting he increase her allowance to fund her lifestyle (although obviously she does not tell him this), and then makes a passing comment that really changed my opinion of her.

“Well, darling, thts just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no-one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

However, although at this point I lost sympathy for Deborah, and to be honest, she doesn’t do much to redeem herself in my estimation, particularly with her actions at the very end of the book, I did finish the novel wondering about what it meant to be a woman left behind during the war. This story paints a very different picture to the common wartime images of women at home, digging for victory and such, that it is impossible not to finish it thinking about possible alternative lifestyles women may have led. If the truth behind this book is to be believed, then there was a whole subculture (I’m aware that word would not have been used then, but it just seems to fit), of women taking up independent lives for themselves, and part of me wants to say ‘who can blame them’. Especially with the double standards between the expectations of men and women. It does make me think that my reaction to Deborah should not be as cut and dry as it is, but I just can’t get over her constant justification of her lifestyle and more than that, her virtual abandonment of her child to further her own desires.

Despite my dislike of the main character, I did love this book. All credit to the author for creating such a dislikeable character, but a book that I love! I haven’t really been compiling a favourites list for this year, either physically or mentally, but if I had, this would be on it. It was very thought provoking, and above all left me grateful for being born in a time where I can, within reason, do as I choose, and not ever really be put in a position where I would have to make the kind of decisions Deborah had to make, however much I disliked the reasoning behind her making those choices.


anothercookiecrumbles said...

I was floored by this book - didn't like Deborah's character, and was almost scared as to how quickly her character spiralled downwards; all for the want of materialistic things. And it's not totally fictional...

Hats off to Laski though - as you say, writing a book with a despicable protagonist, but still ensuring the readers love the book....

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