The novel opens with Mrs. Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband; they are saying goodbye to one another before Graham goes overseas.
War work: it’s not the worst option, as Graham reminds Deborah; he will be relatively safe, as will she, living at a distance from London with their young child Timmy.
Still, she is, predictably: tearful, afraid, and a bit resentful at being left behind, the traditional home-maker, expected to keep the home fires burning.
But there is nothing predictable about Marghanita Laski’s novel (originally published under the name Sarah Russell in 1946).
I knew the book was about the war years and that it considered the subject of infidelity, and so I was expecting something like Mrs. Miniver or the film “Brief Encounter”, but To Bed with Grand Music is decidedly different.
It does consider the impact of the war on the home front and the untraditional roles and opportunities that created for women. “It certainly is that,” agreed Mrs. Chalmers, who had fundamentally the same outlook on opportunities as Deborah; while opportunities that did not appeal could slide by unnoticed, it was immoral to disregard opportunities that did.
Mrs. Chalmers, housekeeper and nanny to Mrs. Deborah Robertson, encourages her employer to take advantage of the opportunity to work in London, leaving Timmy in Mrs. Chalmers’ care and opening doors to future opportunities that are even more appealing to Deborah. Things don’t turn out as either of them expected.
The novel also considers the social roles of women and men, inside and outside the institution of marriage, and the communities that developed, transitory in varying degrees, during the war years.
The novel is half a century old now, so it’s particularly interesting to compare and contrast the ideas and perspectives therein.
Deborah, too, is openly comparing and contrasting as she adjusts to London life:
“[T]hey ate and drank and danced and talked seriously about marriage and women’s attitude to men, and men’s attitude to women. They found it extraordinary how similar were their ideas. A great many sentences began, ‘what I don’t like is when a husband — or a wife’ — and each stored up the information gained about the imperfections in the other’s private life.”
And she becomes aware of the similarities and differences between traditional marriages and the transitory relationships that could develop: “Once the fundamental fact was accepted that all the relationships within this circle were extra-marital ones, the social life they entailed was as conventionally ordinary as the social life of ordinary married couples.” Except, it is observed: “It was inevitably less permanent.”
(Knowing some of the turns that the plot takes, it’s interesting to re-read this last sentence as though the author was more or less attentive to the pronoun’s antecedent: which is less permanent, the social life of ordinary married couples or the social life of extra-marital couples?)
When asked about the difference between a wife and a mistress, one character replies: “I think that being a good mistress is very much the same thing as being a good wife, only in one case the emphasis is perhaps more in the kitchen, in the other, in the bedroom.
It is a question of being a temperament altogether feminine — and I do not mean by that being helpless and wearing frills. i think it is a question of wanting always to give pleasure — of being always pleased and never asking for anything a man does not already want to give you, from a diamond bracelet to an embrace.”
Knowing that this was the conventional social attitude towards women, it’s easy to see how Marghanita Laski’s novel could have been viewed as both illicit and controversial upon publication; it’s also easy to see why Persephone sought to republish: it’s a compelling tale that takes some unexpected turns and it would make for some interesting discussions (and, no doubt, a lot of finger-wagging).