This novel by Barbara Vine (or Ruth Rendell if you prefer) is a good one to consider in light of the UK’s move to equality in marriage this last weekend. The story is set in two time frames: the present and the past, starting in the late 1920s. In each, the social mores and responses to gay relationships and single mothers are explored.
It cleverly explores the extent to which people ostracised by society for breaking one taboo offer understanding to others… or not. The part of the novel that explores the past is a novel within a novel. It tells the story of innocent fifteen year old Maud who becomes pregnant. Her condition makes her an outcast from her family who fear she may ‘infect’ her sisters. Their plans for her include isolation and the sacrifice of her child. There is little space for compassion amidst the outrage.
The only sibling who understands that his sister is suffering is John. He is her only source of support and he takes her away from their parents so that she can keep her baby and pretend to be a married woman while living with him. John, though, is homosexual and struggling because of his love for another man. In rescuing his sister, he hopes to ignore his sexual feelings and build a new life in Devon.
The most shocking part of the book for me was the shock (and disgust) expressed by Maud when John reveals he loves another man. Her treatment by her family has not enabled her to look more kindly on others who may be similarly cast out by society.
This lack of equivalence is reflected in the modern part of the story in disputes between Grace and her brother’s boyfriend over who may be the most oppressed in society: gays or single women. Unexpected pregnancy, gay relationships, sibling rivalries and disappointments feature in both past and present.
This book is worth reading to remind us that times have changed. There is still a long way to go but we do have a more equal and tolerant society now and the change in law in the UK is to be celebrated.