When I spotted a Virago copy of Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell in an Oxford charity shop, I knew precisely three things about M. J Farrell:
- She was Irish.
- She also wrote under the name of Molly Keane – a name popular among bloggers who are avid readers of Virago Modern Classics.
- Her work was characterised by a sharpness of wit that was directed at the Anglo Irish landed gentry of which she was a member.
About Devoted Ladies I knew next to nothing. The back cover blurb told me it was her fifth novel and was unusual in that the elements which characterised her first four publications – namely, horses, romance and snobbery – were replaced by something rather more sensational and gritty. Rather more up my street in other words.
This is a tale of two women who live together within the fashionable London society circle of the 1930s. Farrell avoids any mention of a physical relationship between them but drops enough hints for us to detect this is a lesbian couple; a daring topic for a novel given that only a few years earlier Radclyffe Hall’s novel on the same theme, Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity.
It doesn’t take long to further establish that far from being ‘devoted’ Jessica and Jane have a rather stormy relationship. Jessica is butch, domineering and sharp-tongued; Jane is softer, a bit silly, and a drinker. She is easy prey to the cruel possessive behaviour of her ‘friend’.
Her cohort of friends don’t care for what they witness – particularly when things turn nastily violent – and fear for her safety. But they’re also rather tired of what they consider Jane’s histrionics. One of them, the playwright Sylvester Browne, is too wrapped up in his own world and anyway doesn’t see it as his business to intervene. It’s left to a newcomer among this group, George Playfair, an Irish gentleman of the hunting class, to come to Jane’s aid. When he finds Jane recovering from a bout of alcoholic poisoning he takes pity on her and persuades her to leave her London home and visit Ireland to aid her recovery. Since he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of her relationship with Jessica he’s oblivious to the way she will interpret his invitation as a challenge to her own control over Jane. The battle is set with Jane caught in the middle.
It took a while for me to warm to Devoted Ladies. I enjoyed the first scenes which lay out a world which has so few cares it can devote itself entirely to hedonistic pleasures. Jane isn’t a particularly likeable character – in the early chapters she plays a lot on the little girl lost act but is essentially a drunk much given to plaintive requests to her guests to”fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible.” when she feels she is being ignored. The first chapters set in Ireland didn’t set me alight either since much of this revolves around Sylvester and the Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne, two cousins with whom he stays in Ireland and who struck me as rather pathetic initially.
Piggy is a charmless character when we first get to know her; lacking self knowledge and consideration for Hester, spending money on frivolous presents ye nothing that would make the house they share more habitable. But then Piggy began to get a hold on me the more I saw how Farrell made her silliness and self centred nature a mask. Piggy is so desperate to be loved and valued, that she goes to quite extraordinary lengths to gain the approval of her so-called friend Joan though their every encounter uses her hours of anxiety. How to time her arrival at Joan’s house so as not to appear too eager yet not lose a precious moment of time with Joan? And then the vexed question of what to wear, requiring a delicate balance between looking good and yet not looking as if she’d gone out to buy something new especially.
How To Look One’s Best in Old Clothes was a question that fevered Piggy to her very soul. The passion that was on her to look her very best on these lovely days was set about miserably by the knowledge that her appearance in Castlequarter in any clothes not in rags would be met by a cold scrutiny, and Joan’s faint ridiculing voice would examine the matter, saying “Why are you so grand today Piggy?” or “i did mean to take the children ratting in the manure heaps this morning but it seems a bit severe on your nice new clothes.
Poor Piggy resorts to deliberately cutting holes in perfectly good clothes, wearing clothes stained with a dog’s footprints and an odd ensemble, just to try and pass muster. This is a woman whom Farrell shows, is not living – and has never really lived – but merely existed; a victim to stronger characters who know exactly how to pull her strings. Though Devoted Ladies is meant to be comic – and indeed it has its witty moments – my overwhelming feeling when I learned Piggy’s fate was of profound sadness for a life wasted.
What started as a novel I was ambivalent about – and at times considered abandoning – became by the end a moving experience. It’s apparently not Farrell/Keane’s best work (that seems to be considered Good Behaviour which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981) but it’s given me enough of a taste to read her other novels.
Author: Devoted Ladies by M. J Farrell
Published: 1934. Re-issued as Virago Modern Classic number 138 in 1984
Length: 303 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until All August/All Virago month and #20booksofsummer 2016
Opinions about this novel differ considerably according to some of the reviews on Goodreads. For another fan take a look at the review by heavenali