I am one of, it seems, many people who have ferreted out a copy of this book on the enthusiastic recommendation of Simon at Stuck In a Book. I had never heard of it or the author. Edith Olivier was the youngest of ten children born to the rector and later canon of Wilton. Apart from a brief foray to Oxford, where she studied at St Hugh’s for four terms, she spent her life in Wiltshire. Still, she was part of a creative social circle which included David Cecil, Rex Whistler, Osbert Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and Siegfried Sassoon. During the First World War she served in the Women’s Land Army, and was three times mayor of Wilton. She only started writing in middle age, and The Love-Child was her first novel, published in 1927 when she was fifty-five.
(Edith Olivier by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1933, vintage snapshot print, National Portrait Gallery; the setting is perhaps a little grander than Agatha's garden but it seems in the right spirit)
On the death of her mother, dull, isolated Agatha Bodenham dreams back into being Clarissa, her imaginary childhood friend whose existence had been crushed by a sarcastic governess when Agatha was fourteen. At first, as the creature of her imagination, Clarissa can only be seen by Agatha, but gradually she grows more and more real until other people can see her too. While Clarissa is a child, Agatha can keep her more or less to herself, but as she grows older the charms of the wider world prove increasingly attractive and Agatha must share her.
Clarissa’s changeling nature is emphasised; she is described as an ‘imp’, an ‘elf’, as ‘shadowy’ and ethereal; she appears and vanishes as she pleases until she dons the clothes Agatha has ordered for her. She isn’t interested in toys and she and Agatha play endless games of ‘Let’s Pretend’, which each enjoys as much as the other. ‘Agatha was Clarissa’s only toy, and she was Agatha’s.’ With Clarissa, Agatha becomes inventive, amusing and joyful. But always she fears that Clarissa will ‘go back’ to the place whence she came, even after she has ceased to disappear.
‘We often see two bodies approach each other without being impelled by any external force. The cause which produces this effect is called Attraction, or that principle whereby the minuter particles of matter tend towards each other.... By this is most satisfactorily explained the motions of the Heavenly Bodies.... These spheres, separated from each other by immense intervals, are united by some secret bond.... This power of attraction is in some degree the cause of the juices circulating in the capillary vessels of plants and animals.... The Supreme Wisdom manifests itself in the government of the Celestial bodies, and is equally apparent in that of Rational Beings.’
Clarissa read quickly, with odd little mispronunciations in the long words, and with pauses now and again between the phrases, wrinkling her forehead and staring at the book, as she tried to follow the course of the stars swinging through those vast spaces, united by that secret bond.
Agatha’s mind was not bent starwards. There at last was the great scientific truth which lay behind the appearance of Clarissa. It was the body of Agatha Bodenham herself which had attracted those minute particles of matter from which had been compounded Clarissa’s exquisite little form, and then, from those particles, by a perfectly normal law of nature, a rational being had come into existence. It was difficult to understand, but there was no doubt that Clarissa could be explained by the very same law which accounted for the appearance of the planets in the sky and the vegetables in the garden. She had her place between the stars and the cauliflowers.
[...] Clarissa said:
‘I wonder what would happen if one of the stars went just a tiny bit too far away, and got out of the attractive power of the sun.’
[...] ‘Well, I suppose it would just go out,’ Agatha said, ‘but it couldn’t really happen. That secret bond between them cannot be broken. It said so in the book.’
‘It does happen sometimes though,’ Clarissa went on; ‘and they do go out, just as you said. I mean shooting stars. They must have broken the secret bond, and I expect that’s why I always feel so dreadfully miserable when I see them disappear.’
As well as being the sister and friend Agatha never had, the daughter she never bore, Clarissa represents that lively, imaginative part of Agatha which was suppressed by her upbringing. But if Agatha depends on Clarissa for wholeness and for an outlet for all her unexpressed love, Clarissa depends on Agatha for her very existence. Like the stars in the passage above, she must remain in Agatha’s orbit to survive and this gives their relationship a special closeness which will be threatened when a young neighbour, David, falls in love with Clarissa. Olivier shows an ugly counterpart of the relationship first in Clarissa’s love for the horrible monkey and then later by the final scene (I don’t want to give away everything).
The novel explores close mother–daughter relationships, how they can be both intensely rewarding and bring out the best in the participants but also become stifling. With the advent of David, though, it seems that all love is essentially possessive; David believes that he must 'fight' Agatha to 'gain' Clarissa. The book is also about the fundamental importance of imagination in life, or at least a full, happy life. It is charming and sad and humorous too, and it’s a great pity it is not in print at the moment.
(Rex Whistler, Edith Olivier, oil, Wilton Town Council, found at the Persephone Post; I don't have any further information about this painting. Edith Olivier met Rex Whistler in 1924 when she was holidaying with her friend Lady Pamela Grey in Italy and Lady Pamela’s son, Stephen Tennant, brought along a friend from the Slade – Whistler. Their good friendship lasted until his death, and while Edith helped launch Rex’s career he and his friends encouraged her writing. The title page of the edition of The Love-Child I have bears an illustration by Whistler, if we ever get any sunshine in Belgium ever again I shall photograph it and post it here)
(Edited to add: here's the title page:)
Tip for home hairdressers: After administering a haircut, always check that the hair on the left side of your/your victim's head is not two inches shorter than the hair on the right side, preferably before you/he/she/it sally forth for the afternoon, as humiliation may ensue.