Enid Bagnold, “The Loved and Envied”

I’ll get the trivia out of the way first: Enid Bagnold’s great-grand-daughter is Samantha Cameron, wife of David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Also, the film of National Velvet (based on a book by Bagnold) appeared in 1944, seven years before the 1951 publication date of The Loved and Envied.

Now I’ll get the cheating out of the way: though The Loved and Envied was published by Virago, it’s very hard to find in that edition and I re-read it in hardcover. I regret this deeply because the cover of the Virago is a ravishing portrait of Lady Diana Cooper, I believe in her wedding dress. I’d guess it was an Oswald Birley;  if you have it on your book shelf would you tell me?

Lady Diana Manners in 1916

Lady Diana is crucial to The Loved and Envied because this is a book about beauty and old age. I have believed for a while that Bagnold and Lady Diana Manners, as she was then, were debutantes together, though the dates don’t quite tally. Bagnold was presentable but not a beauty. Lady Diana was widely considered the loveliest woman of her era. She was also very near-sighted, hence the slightly unfocused blue stare. And I think I remember from the Philip Ziegler biography of her that she, like Ruby Maclean in The Loved and Envied, felt quite detached from her face. Late in the novel, at the age of 53, Ruby tells a friend that having beauty like hers “gives one, all the time, the something more than one asks, and I shall have now to grow used to the little bit less,… that will in future be given one on demand.”

We meet Ruby as an older woman — actually we see her first, through the eyes of one of the many female characters in the book who envy her. It’s a wonderful set-piece, as Ruby appears in a theater box, decked out in a diamond necklace. What the descriptions of jewels and clothes in this book must have meant in 1951 Britain! The narrative zigzags back and forth, stitching together Ruby’s life with the lives of her family and friends. It is an unrepentantly glamorous story, in which most of the characters are titled and most of the rest are their servants. I admit a deep fascination with the milieu. Especially with the clothes — there is a little haute-couture Cinderella section toward the end that I read several times, almost swooning.

But The Loved and Envied is more than a vintage Vogue between hard covers. It’s a fascinating question: how does stupendous beauty form a character, shape a life? And then what happens as it retreats? To help her story along Bagnold gives Ruby a friend who has overcome ugliness and crafted a satisfying career. Yet Cora says, “Can you faintly imagine what it is not to be well served by one’s appearance, to have, at each new relationship, to live it down?”  Men fall for Ruby like dominoes, and her daughter Miranda — pleasant-looking enough — burns with agonized jealousy of her mother.

Bagnold settles nothing. That’s not her intention (though the end does get a little bit talky as she tries to settle a few characters’ fates). She just wants to set us thinking. I have to add that I adored, as well as the setting and the genuinely attractive characters,the highly metaphorical writing style. It’s very mid-20th century English — far from American simplicity  — and I find it playful, moving, and immensely enjoyable. For instance, about friendship Bagnold says, “… little spoken of is the friendship, in age, of two people who might have loved. For them what has never been said is a last elixir of youth, the only bottle on the shelf never taken down.” If this is the kind of writing that pleases you, The Loved and Envied will be a great treat.

Late-breaking addition: Darlene at Roses Over a Cottage Door found a copy of this in a second-hand shop and has posted a photo if you want to see the lovely cover.

This is my last effort in the Virago Reading Week Challenge, and thanks to Rachel’s and Carolyn’s hard work in putting it together, I’ve read dozens of wonderful blog posts. It’s really been inspiring. The TBR stack (I keep mine in my head where it gathers wool rather than dust) just got a lot taller!

 

 

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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15 Responses to Enid Bagnold, “The Loved and Envied”

  1. Annie says:

    I haven’t read this, indeed if you’d asked me I would have had to admitting knowing nothing of Bagnold’s work except ‘National Velvet’, however, I have read and highly recommend, Cooper’s three volumes of memoirs, ‘The Rainbow Comes and Goes’, ‘The Light of Common Day’, and ‘Trumpets from the Steep’ which were published, I think, in a series called Lives and Letters. I’m afraid I don’t know if they’re still available.

  2. carolwallace says:

    One great thing about the Internet: old books are always available! I’m seem to remember that Ziegler’s bio leaned pretty heavily on DC’s memoirs and I do have friends who’ve read them. I’ll have to get my hands on them. Thanks, Annie!

  3. Darlene says:

    Oh my goodness! I just posted a photo of this book on my blog and your post came up as I could not find any reviews on Amazon!

    I picked up the VMC green cover for $3.95 at a second-hand shop and it’s in quite good condition. Flipping through it the story sounds like just the sort I love.

  4. bookssnob says:

    Brilliant. I read this a couple of years ago and remember loving it, but I think you need to be a bit older to appreciate it, and I found your comments far more insightful than I was able to be when I read it. I didn’t realise it was based on Diana Cooper – adds another interesting dimension I missed the first time round too! Thanks so much for taking part this week, it’s been lovely having you!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t have missed it! The best thing is, well, two things — getting new ideas for books and finding new like-minded readers! Thanks so much for organizing, Rachel!

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  7. Carolyn says:

    This sounds good. Beautiful people are so much admired in regular life that I’m so glad for literature like this (the character of Cynthia in Wives & Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is another closely examined beautiful girl) to help explain them, why they seem just a little bit more distant and pleased with themselves!

  8. carolwallace says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting thing. Enviable, of course, and yet That Face does force you to address it in some way, I think. I know one beauty who is extra-warm as a way of disarming new acquaintances, and a 25-year-old girl who still doesn’t know quite how to handle it. We ordinary ones may be envious but it’s a gift that will be withdrawn. And then what?

    Me, I’ve persuaded myself that it’s more freeing to pass unnoticed. Most of the time I really do believe this!

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  10. Nancy Casserley says:

    Fortunately I could put my hands right on the Virago copy of The Loved and Envied that you gave me three or four years ago – such a fab read. The painting is called Portrait of Lady Diana Cooper (no mention of wedding, but surely it’s a wedding veil), by J.J. Shannon, private collection. The transparency was supplied by The Fine Art Society, London.
    I don’t know anything about J.J.Shannon, do you? I foresee a lovely half-an-hour ahead of me trying to find out who else he has painted….

  11. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Nancy, of course you are the one who comes up with the answer! Do tell me what you find out about Shannon, won’t you? The name tickles a little shred of memory — for instance, I mentally assign him the name James Jerusha Shannon or some such. Could it be possible? And don’t you wonder why the Manners/Rutland family didn’t use Birley? Wasn’t it Birley we saw at the Nat’l Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago? All those royal portraits? More to mull over…XXX

  12. Simon T says:

    OH, this does sound fascinating. Bagnold’s is a name that has been on my horizon for years, but I’ve never got or read anything by her.

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, it’s an interesting question that she tackles. Not without considerable idealization, of course — she lays the glamor on quite thick, not unlike “Brideshead Revisited.” But from a different angle.

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