Monday, October 18, 2010

Mrs. Craddock

I've been making my way through some of the books that were suggested to me as "forgotten treasures" last month, books that other people really like but aren't very well-known. One of these was Mrs. Craddock, by M. Somerset Maugham (suggested by Amanda, who read it when she was 21).

Maybe I'd have liked this novel better if I'd come across it when I was younger, but I thought the main character, Bertha--also known as Mrs. Craddock--was a ninny. Her husband was, at best, ill-suited to her, and the plot did nothing to dispel my feeling that Maugham was not overly sympathetic to the plight of women in his day.

Bertha Craddock is a woman who desperately needs an occupation. When she fails at the only occupation she considers suitable for herself--motherhood--she doesn't find anything else to do except invent romantic fantasies (reminding me irresistibly of Madame Bovary) and read to pass the time. Of course I have no objections to reading merely to pass the time, but if a fictional life is going to have any kind of point, all the reading should eventually add up to something. Bertha's reading doesn't.

At first, though, it seems like Bertha (again, like Madame Bovary) is going to find the kind of excitement in life that she finds in books, through sheer force of will. When she decides to fall in love with a young man:
"She had emotions enough in her breast, they beat against one another like birds in a net struggling to get free; but not for worlds would she have bidden anyone look into her heart, full of expectations, of longing and of a hundred strange desires."

Bertha finds out, on her honeymoon, that her husband is naive and unsophisticated in his tastes but manages to go on with her fantasy of loving him:
"it touched her to see how deeply he felt it all. She loved him ten times more because his emotions were easily aroused; ah, yes, she abhorred the cold cynicism of the worldly-wise who sneer at the burning tears of the simple-minded."

The tart observations and politic silences of Bertha's aunt, the unmarried Miss Ley, were a reliable relief for me from the forced immersion in Bertha's delusions:
"Miss Ley, with her knowledge of the difficulties in store for the couple, asked herself if she could do anything. But what could she do? They were reading the book of life in their separate ways, one in italics, the other in the big round letters of the copy-book; and how could she help them to find a common character? Of course the first year of married lief is difficult, and the weariness of the flesh adds to the inevitable disillusionment. Every marriage has its moments of despair. The great danger is in the onlooker, who may pay them too much attention, and by stepping in render the difficulty permanent. Miss Ley's cogitations brought her not unnaturally to the course that most suited her temperament; she concluded that far and away the best plan was to attempt nothing and let things right themselves as best they could."

There is one good "Men are from Mars" type of moment when Bertha whines that her husband doesn't love her as she loves him and he says:
"...if you'll tell me what you want me to do, I'll try to do it."
"Oh, how can I tell you?" she cried, impatiently. "I do everything I can to make you love me, and I can't. If you're a stock and a stone, how can I teach you to be the passionate lover? I want you to love me as I love you."
"Well, if you ask me for my opinion I should say it was rather a good job if I don't. Why, the furniture would be smashed up in a week if I were as violent as you."
"I shouldn't mind if you were violent if you loved me," replied Bertha, taking his remark with passionate seriousness. "I shouldn't care if you beat me. I shouldn't mind how much you hurt me, if you did it because you loved me."
"I think a week of it would about sicken you of that sort of love, my dear."

But Mr. Craddock doesn't continue to be the calm and sensible sort he seems at the beginning of the marriage; he turns out to be a little tin-pot dictator with the bit of power that his wife's position and her desires accord him.

So there's no one for me to like in this novel. The characters are silly and disagreeable, if pitiable. The only pleasures I found in reading were the occasional observations from one character or another that seem to come right out of what I know about Maugham's own life and reputation, like what a pleasure it can be to read
"half-forgotten masterpieces of the past, in poets not quite divine whom fashion had left on one side, in the playwrights, novelists and essayists whose remembrance lives only with the bookworm. It is a relief sometimes to look away from the bright sun of perfect achievement; and the writers who appealed to their age and not to posterity have by contrast a subtle charm. Undazzled by their splendour, one may discern more easily their individualities and the spirit of their time; they have pleasant qualities not always found among their betters, and there is even a certain pathos in their incomplete success."

I enjoyed the irony of this passage, now that Maugham, who was a popular novelist in his day, is less read.

Reading Mrs. Craddock made me profoundly grateful to live in the 21st century, when even the diminished expectations of a woman my age are so much greater than the expectations of a woman who has her entire life before her at the beginning of the 20th century.


Amanda said...

Have you read other books by Maugham?

The observation that Maugham was unsympathetic to women in his time is very strange to me. From all the research I've done and all the books I've read, Maugham was actually far more sympathetic to women than men. All his men are flat, 1-dimensional characters that he didn't understand very well, and his women are round and alive as characters. He understood them, and sometimes, at the same time, viewed them as rivals. Personally I thought he showed a LOT of sympathy towards women in this book, but I guess I saw it from a completely different point of view. Sorry you didn't like it better. I reread it a few years ago and still enjoyed it, and plan to read it again come January.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, I've read Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, and The Razor's Edge. I'm sure you're right about how well he understood women, and I've read before about his rivalry with them; I wondered myself why I reacted this way to Bertha. Probably I should reread the others and then I'd come around to your (more mainstream) point of view.
Do you remember what I think about saying "sorry" for recommending a book?

SFP said...

I had to go search my Library Thing catalog to see if I own a copy of this: I do. It will be interesting to see which side of the fence I come down on, yours or Amanda's.

I liked that quote a lot.

kittiesx3 said...

Amanda, I've recommended a couple of books to Jeanne. She finished one and didn't care for it, read another and sort of liked it long after and then I think she's still not quite able to read the third. No big deal--different people etc :-)

Jeanne said...

Susan, I'll bet the one you mean is the one about the novels and essays that were popular in their day. I'm fascinated with those, of course, to the extent of writing an entire dissertation on topical satires that probably no one will ever read again!

Elizabeth, You know I quite like getting book recommendations from people whose taste is different from my own--but yeah, it's taking me a while to get interested in that third big novel. I'll get there, but don't know when.

Teena said...

I didn't get any farther in this review than ninny. Ninny!

Jeanne said...

Teena, it's the best word for her, I'm afraid!