The Beauties and Furies
"'She laughed naughtily. "really, you don't think we spend all our time worshipping you! Perhaps old maids do; not a married woman. We make men, we don;t worship them."'
"Elvira Western, a dark English beauty, is solidly and boringly married to the bourgeois doctor Paul. On a whim she runs away to Paris to meet her student lover Oliver: tall, thin and romantic, the embodiment of every woman's dream. But life is not as Elvira imagined it would be. Sitting in cafes listening to interminable discussions on left-wing politics, living in a dingy hotel room, spending hours on her own: this is not Elvira's idea of romantic bliss. And Elvira is in love with a vagabond lover; passion she has found, but at what price? Elvira begins to long for home...
"Christina Stead born in Australia in 1902, is one of the greatest contemporary writers in the English language. Enacted against a backdrop of the legendary Paris between the wars, The Beauties and Furies has a cast of fabulous, eccentric characters. There are dangers and prostitutes, radicals, artists and coquettes, poets and paupers. In this, her second novel, first published in 1936 and unavailable since then, Christina Stead is at her mordant, witty best."
The express flew towards Paris over the flooded March swamps. In a parlour-car, the melancholy dark young woman looked out persistently at the sand-dunes, cement-mills, pines, the war-cemetery with stone banners like folded umbrellas, the fields under water, the bristling ponds with deserted boats and the little naked trees which marked the horizon-searching roads. Her lips moved almost imperceptibly. The sky was clearing after weeks of rain. Opposite to her sat a man she judged to be an Italian; the initials on his tobacco-pouch were A. M. in gilt script, he wore a diamond tiepin and he was about forty. Across the aisle a rouged blonde with a cigarette-holder ordered Evian water and drawled about a hunt ball and 'Esmé, a perfect darling, terrific at charades.' The small dark woman was slipping her new shoe off her swollen right foot when she saw the Italian looking at her sociably. She drew a letter out of her bag and tried to pretend that she had just got it, hurriedly, in the morning's mail, as she left for the train. The address, in a student's script, said 'Mrs. Paul Western, Mecklenburgh Square, London,' and had a French stamp. Mrs. Western rather slowly took out the letter and read it from the beginning, although these were the very words that she had been repeating by heart during the journey. It said:
ELVIRA, my DEAR, - Paris is bitter cold, with slate-blue skies, and yet I am already looking forward to the spring, but all you can look forward to in your blue-nose London is arthritis-March, neuralgia-April, coldsore-May, sniffle-June, macadamsick-july, cheappetrol-August, fireless-September, influenza-October. and four coffin-months to follow. I don't say, How can any woman resist my entreaties, but just, How can any young woman resist Paris in the spring? How can you resist me in the spring? It's against nature and all the authorities! On moonlight nights, when everyone walks with his shade, I pretend we are here together. You are the moon of beauty and I a moonstruck poet. My little glass of water on the bedroom table, when the moon sails high above the narrow street, shines with one eye, a little moon, and I go out. The skies are starling-dark - your hair; the town and its towers discoloured - your breast; the river, curdled, bubbling-your voice; the glistening brown buds of the first-sprouters - your eyes. I lie awake at night, my body sinks like a crust shillyshallying to the silt of a dull canal, my brain floats. I begin to see all that tame, familiar country between Paris and the Channel, the Channel and London. I see you at home, grumping over a meal with Paul, or by yourself by the fire, contented in habitual melancholy. I feel the stuff of your diffident dresses, hear your cool voice dropping disconsolate words like water from a tap: you odd creature I I'm afraid to do it often, because I lie awake a long time afterwards,open to sights, scents, sounds. Asleep, I know you are not with me, and I devise all sorts of ways of getting to you. I am up home in Northampton saving up to come to London, working in my father's bakery, the Polack beside me singing unintelligible songs, covered with sweat from the heat, sweeping, scraping and saving and learning under an oil-lamp. Or I am sitting for examinations in a row and cannot see you till I pass them all. Or I am in Paris for seven years, confined in the Archives, and all sorts of worries begin: Will she be dead in seven years? Will I? Will she have a child and forget me? I sob in these dreams and wake up in the morning crying. The next day I can't work at all, but nod over my desk at the Archives. Only once or twice I dreamed we were going to be married: I made all preparations for the wedding: we went to the registrar; coming out of the registry office, men working on the road took off their hats and sang the Wedding March. That was the happiest moment of the whole year when I dreamed that! . . .
From the Virago Modern Classics paperback edition, 1985.
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Last modified: January 4, 2004.