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 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!