A comedic novel about a group of genteel London folk and their various hopes and grievances when it comes to love. 1908.
It’s been raining here for four days straight. Luckily, Love’s Shadow has provided the perfect antidote. Ada Leverson has been compared to Oscar Wilde—they were close friends—but I think I actually prefer Leverson’s style. (Shocking, right??) When I was a teen I went through a phase when I adored Oscar Wilde and everything he ever wrote/said, but eventually that phase fizzled out. I still admire his wit. His stories, however, always left me wanting something more…I felt like his humor kept his characters a distance, like they were humorous but not believable as real people, with real yearnings and disappointments.
In Love’s Shadow, on the other hand, I felt like there were characters who weren’t just there for me to laugh at. Some of them I was intrigued by; others, I simply admired. Its tone, too, reminded me of other light, early 20th century books I’ve enjoyed lately, like Nonsense Novels and Brewster’s Millions.
The story begins with the “main” characters, Bruce and Edith Ottley, who along with their young son live in a tiny apartment. (Just how tiny is “tiny,” I couldn’t help wondering?) Bruce is something of a big baby/hypochondriac who works in an unspecified profession, referred to simply as “the office.” Edith has a friend, Hyacinth, who’s an orphaned heiress. Hyacinth is in love with a man who’s her social equal (whew), but though she’s beautiful and likeable, he’s not in love with her. Instead, he’s in love with an older widow who absolutely refuses to take him seriously.
Hyacinth can’t live alone, of course, so she lives with a companion/friend, Anne. To me, Anne is probably the most intriguing character. She always dresses in an unflattering mackintosh and boots, even when it’s sunny outside. She loves Hyacinth but, as with Hyacinth and her young man (and, in turn, that young man and the widow he’s in love with), the love is not returned with quite the same devotion. Hmm, anyone sensing a theme here? I doubt if this is the way the Anne-Hyacinth relationship is meant to be read, but to my 21st century mind Anne seemed, well, gay. At the very least, she is faithful, pragmatic, and truthful, which makes her a breath of fresh air in the story:
Some people liked Anne, many detested her, but she inspired in both friends and enemies a species of trust.
But Leverson is also happy to poke fun at her characters. Hyacinth’s aunt, for instance, is “upholstered” rather than simply clothed; that’s how tightly she is always dressed. In one scene she is assumed to be hushed by strong emotion, but really she’s not talking because she can barely breathe in her dress. This same character also “glides” from a room, “as though on castors”…!
The funniest parts, though, consistently arise from scenes between Bruce and Edith Ottley. These two characters are continued in three further books, Tenterhooks, Love at Second Sight, and The Little Ottleys, and I can see why Leverson kept them around. Everything about Bruce would make him impossible to live with: he’s a man-child, consults with specialists when he’s bored, disagrees with everyone, holds a very high opinion of himself. And yet, here’s his pleasant wife, stuck with him for life. I both laughed at and admired the ways in which she handled him. His “illnesses” were by far the worst/funniest:
For the last few days Bruce had been greatly depressed, his temper more variable than ever, and he had managed to collect a quite extraordinary number of entirely new imaginary illnesses. He was very capricious about them and never carried one completely through, but abandoned it almost as soon as he had proved to Edith that he really had the symptoms. Until she was convinced he never gave it up; but the moment she appeared suitably anxious about one disease he adopted another.
In all, my most striking impression from this book is how little any of the characters actually do. The married people fuss over the unmarried people, and the unmarried people fuss over each other. To me, all this fuss is the meaning of “love’s shadow.”
Overall, it was an enjoyable read, enjoyable enough for me to add the rest of the Little Ottleys series to my to-read list.