My rating: 6/10
This is a little-discussed novel by the author who went on to become world renowned for her historical fiction centered on ancient Greece: The Bull From the Sea, The King Must Die, Fire From Heaven, et al. Before Mary Renault hit her stride with the ancients, she wrote a number of contemporary novels, all concerning the romantic relationships and struggles for self determination of the characters. Most featured hospital settings or nurses and doctors as characters, as the author drew on her own hospital and nursing experience for inspiration and to provide accurate detail.
North Face was Mary Renault’s fifth published novel, released in 1948 in North America (and a year later in England), just as Mary Renault was settling into a new life in South Africa, where she had moved with her partner Julie Mullard after winning a $150,000 prize from the American motion picture company MGM for her fourth novel, Return to Night. Renault was to write one more contemporary novel, the highly regarded The Charioteer (1953) before turning to ancient Greece for the inspiration of her future writing years.
The story opens in a boarding house in rural Devon, where two opinionated single women who are staying for their holidays are making each other’s acquaintance and finding each other rather unsympathetic. Miss Searle is an intellectual college don who travels with her weighty works of Chaucer, which she has been immersed in studying for the past decade. Miss Fisher is a nurse, with a hearty, rather “common” manner; she has a jolly appreciation of the realities of life, and finds Miss Searle’s fastidious air to be more than somewhat annoying.
World War II has just ended, and everyone we meet is still showing signs of the many years of emotional trauma they have experienced. Some have been wound up so tightly they are finding it difficult to return to some sort of new normal; society itself has taken a giant step sideways, leaving those slow to adapt floundering. Add to this the effects of personal tragedies, which are exacerbated by the effects of the war, and suddenly the tense atmosphere of every sort of social gathering is perfectly understandable.
The Misses Searle and Fisher unite in speculation regarding their fellow guests. They are most interested in the solitary Neil, who is abstracted and unapproachable, and spends his days trekking about the countryside with knapsack and detailed maps. A man with a secret, surely? Which is found to be true. Neil is a more than competent boys’ school teacher who has had a fairly uneventful war. Deemed an essential worker, most of it has been spent in his usual occupation, despite his attempts at joining active service. Finally he was accepted into a Service position, still in England, but far from home.
While Neil was otherwise occupied, his young wife discovered and was discovered by the young officers at the nearby American army camp; what started as innocent flirtation turned into a series of sexual liaisons. Neil had returned from his military posting to find that his wife was no longer interested in him in a sexual or emotional way. The dissolution of their marriage led to personal tragedy, as the couple’s young daughter, adored by Neil, is horribly injured in a fire while Neil is out and her mother is entertaining a soldier in her bedroom. The child dies, and on his return from her funeral, Neil is confronted by his wife’s demand for a divorce. She is pregnant by her latest lover, and wishes to start a new life with him post-haste.
Neil is therefore wandering about in Devon in a sort of trauma-induced trance, agonizing over what next to do, and if life is even worth living. In this state he bumps up against another troubled soul, the slender, virginal (literally) Ellen, who has just arrived at the guesthouse.
Ellen has also had an emotionally fraught time of things after the death of her fiancé, a fighter pilot, in the closing months of the war. He was a childhood first love; the two were brought up together as their mothers were step-sisters, and though Ellen was deeply attached to him, she was unable to bring herself to share his deeper passion. She feels that her rejection of his physical advances had hurt him so much that he had been careless while on his last mission; she holds herself responsible for his death, and has punished herself and sought to get over her frigidity by arranging a liaison with another man at the guest house. This falls through, as Ellen is unable to carry through with the physical aspect of the “fling”, and she too is wandering the countryside in something of a daze.
Neil and Ellen discover some shared interests, most notably rock climbing, and the theme of frail human pitted against cold stone and working out emotional issues through physical exertion runs through the novel. As Neil’s and Ellen’s romantic interests in each other grows, Miss Searle and Miss Fisher provide a sort of argumentative and gossiping Greek chorus to the progress of the affair, each putting her own interpretation on what is going on.
Much self-analysis and heart-rending ensues, before Neil and Ellen find comfort in each other’s arms.
A slightly unusual novel, and definitely of strong interest to the Mary Renault completest. I had no trouble at all reading this one through, though it was rather deeply seeped in gloomy psychological trauma and all sorts of Freudian situations, including a gypsy’s warning to Neil and Ellen to “stay away from high places”, which immediately led me to expect some sort of tragic ending, what with all the clambering about on cliffs. (Which didn’t materialize, much to my relief.)
Each of the two main protagonists finds at least some of the solution to their inner turmoil through the concentrated effort of working across a sheer rock face, though I was rather annoyed at the author for allowing Neil to get himself out of a desperate climbing situation while leaving Ellen stranded and requiring Neil’s aid, a metaphor which I felt was likely to represent their future life together.
Oh, and because it is Mary Renault, I am sure you are wondering about the gay/lesbian themes. Not much going on here, unless our intellectual and buttoned-up Miss Searle is a latent lesbian, but as she is quite obviously attracted to the masculinity of Neil, that one doesn’t really fly. Neil has had a close friend and climbing companion, Sammy, killed in the war, but how close a friend is never detailed and the relationship seems to be platonic from the hints dropped by Neil. Ellen thinks that she may be lesbian due to her frigidity towards her fiancé’s advances, but she allows herself to be wooed by a female friend and it doesn’t “take” so she crosses that possibility off the list. I think that’s about it, or at least all I can think of without re-reading with this sort of analysis in mind. 😉
Not in the same league as the best of this writer’s works, but most interesting in view of her future accomplishments. Next on my Mary Renault want-to-read list is The Charioteer, which is deemed to be the best of her contemporary fictions, along with the satirical The Friendly Young Ladies.