Sunday, 10 March 2013

Patience by John Coates


Edward had definite ideas about money. He didn't like her to fritter it away, as he called it, even her own; and as she found herself quite unable to keep accounts that balanced, however hard she tried, he had made her have two different banks. Every month he paid a fixed sum into the ordinary bank, out of which she had to pay certain bills, like the butcher's, and the gas, and the electric light, and find the odd pound she used for flowers and taxis and the babies, and out of which she should pay all the other bills, like clothes and new curtains for the house. However, if she got seriously behind, Edward might help her with the second lot of bills, though never with the first, on what he called principle. She had to manage to pay those. The money in the special bank was rather a mystery. It was hers entirely in a way; and in another way it wasn't.
It's clear right from the start of Patience that our leading lady is a rather downtrodden wife, even if she hasn't yet realised it. She's appropriately named, and she regards herself as happily married until the day her self-righteous brother comes to tell her that he's seen her husband Edward with another woman. Patience's world has revolved around Edward and her home and "the babies" and, to be fair, he's a kindly tyrant, pompous and unimaginative. Her brother Lionel is much more immediately loathsome, solely concerned with the fact that Edward is committing Sin - he doesn't really care about Patience as a wronged wife, but busies himself with Edward's "spiritual welfare" and worries that the children will be disgraced if they don't have a father. Lionel has already more or less disowned his other sister, Helen, because she got divorced -- she has remarried and had a child, but Lionel refers to him as a bastard. Lionel is a staunch Catholic, Patience a rather less fanatical one, but sincere, and Helen is lapsed, of course. But Edward's infidelity is only really a catalyst for the events which follow, leading to a what should prove a shattering discovery for Patience. Only it isn't, quite -- it's not nearly as earth-shattering as some of the other discoveries Patience is about to make. And to her, they are really much more interesting....

As befits its title, Patience is a very quiet book. There was a point, reading it, where I stopped and thought "This is written by a man!" In fact, I had to look back at the cover to be certain. Because although it's also very funny, it is very delicately so, and Patience's at time bemused but nonetheless gratified exploration of her thoughts and feelings is handled with a gentle irony and deftness. Compared, say, to Denis Mackail, of whom I am exceedingly fond, this is a much more subtle work, with the quality of a fable about it.

I see, however, that some readers have found Patience as a character irritatingly naive and passive in her seven-year marriage and self-absorbed in her desire to extricate herself. Hmm. I can't say I agree -- yes, she is an absolute innocent and has been very complacent thus far in her life, but I saw that as more to do with the period. It's difficult, from the twenty-first century, to appreciate just how sheltered an upbringing could still be, in the 1950s, when a girl could go straight from living at home with mummy and daddy to a husband who expected to be the authority in his home. And to those who find it too pat that she instantly falls for someone, well, I'm still a believer in love at first sight, and this is, after all, a comedy.

6 comments:

  1. ACtually, your last paragraph made me more eager to read this. I'm usually fond of characters that others find too subdued or passive. This wasn't very high on my list of Persephone's to read, but you might just have changed that (not solely because of the character description, but also because of it being a quiet book - sometimes that's just the thing I'm looking for).

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  2. Oh good, Iris! I hope you will like it too. I'm reading the latest Persephone at the moment (The Exiles Return) - it's another quiet book (so far at least) and I think you'll like that one too.

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  3. As a believer in love at first sight - which would be my husband and myself! - you have sold this book as one I should give a go. I'm not usually big with passive heroines, I want to shake them and say, wake up! Just the information that he has a secret bank account and won't help her out with clothes makes me mad....I would have been such a bad wife before the 1960's!

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    1. Oh me too, Susan! But I'm glad you are another romantic :-)

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  4. I was one of the ones who really didn't like this book and thought it could only have been written by a man. (The Exiles Return on the other hand I've just found very satisfying.) It does seem to be a title that divides people.

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    1. There were things about it that I did decide might only have been written by a man - I wish I were more analytically minded because I would rather like to compare it to Angela Thirkell's Ankle Deep (now there was a character I wanted to shake!) but it would take me so impossibly long to get round to it and then I'd be beset by the conviction that anyone else could do it better. I don't think I would re-read it except for that sort of purpose though.

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