Some strange and fundamental innocence

Dear Gamel,

One Way of Love – ways of love, one-way love, love’s way, way too much love, on one’s way to love. What am I to make of the title of your book, given that it revolves around longing and unfulfillment rather than love? Printed in 1932, the book was withdrawn by its publisher on the last minute, for fear of prosecution for obscenity after the case over Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). It remained unpublished until 1987, when Virago took it up.

The story follows Mariana, a twenty-something who, orphaned at a young age, moves from South Carolina to New York City, to pursue a career as a poet. When the story begins, she is still a child, daydreaming in the attic of her grandmother’s house in the South, while the sea and the wind are hurling outside. “The sea on the shore beat loud and insistent. Mariana heard it even through the veil of accustomedness. If she went up upon the sea, as Homer said, she would go to some country where she would find what she wanted. She did not know where that country would be or what would happen there.”

Then we are transported to a couple of years afterwards, when we get to know where this country is and what happened there: after the death of her grandmother, Mariana is now in Greenwich Village, living on her small income, surrounded by a bohemian group of impoverished artists. Mariana spends her days reading, writing, daydreaming, going to parties and art galleries, and being courted by clueless men – nonetheless, she seems plagued by a pervading sense that she is wasting her life. And she feels bored.

Out of boredom, she passively tolerates the sexual advances of an English journalist, Alan, who becomes obsessed by her indifference to him. “He realised some odd quality in her, some strange and fundamental innocence that nothing he could do would ever change.” When they finally have sex, it plays out as a violation. “Long afterwards when she read Ulysses she was to recognize for the first time what something in her sad, young mind kept saying as she stiffened her body and bit her lips not to struggle or cry out against the strangeness and the pain. For the small, wise voice of her mind kept saying sadly – ‘It might as well be he. It might as well be he.’”

Out of boredom she marries him, they live for a while in New York, then take a sabbatical in the woods, and later travel to England. Your writing is simple, raw, but oddly poetic: you explore female desire, orgasm, attempted contraception, rape, and abortion. Mariana goes through all that as if she were sleepwalking, or following a flow: “She would not struggle against it any longer – this tide of life which she could not understand. She would let it carry her where it would. Perhaps her longings, her loneliness would be assuaged if she would but go with it.”

She goes with it, struggling all the while with a feeling of loneliness and longing for something that cannot last. Your protagonist’s name is taken from Tennyson’s eponymous poem – which, in turn, is taken from the deserted Mariana in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Much like Tennyson’s Mariana, your protagonist is constantly struggling with her isolation and her vague longings for a meaningful connection with the world.

Much like a character in a poem, your Mariana is a vortex where all the other characters’ longings seem to converge. They are looking pass one another, but never really reaching towards one another. One way of love is not exactly what they offer, but rather what they are perpetually looking for. Like a character in a poem, your Mariana can never really be reached, and she is doomed to repeat her story again and again. She can never be soiled, she can never fall from grace, she can only be stuck in grace forever.

Innocence had been the book’s original title, and it seems to be  a feature that all of the characters see in (or project onto) Mariana: her aloofness, her detached, elfish nature, which, not matter how much spoiled by the men in her life, seems to remain obstinately untouched. She starts to suffer from tuberculosis and almost dies, leaves her husband, gets back to him, gets pregnant, gets an abortion, leaves him for good, takes a lover, is raped by him, then take another lover in close succession. Some of her lovers even take pleasure in hurting her: “He felt her shrinking and quivering underneath him. And the knowledge that he was hurting her gave him the most exquisite, the most tender pleasure”.

And, all the way through, she remains unchanged, indifferent, untouched – and, in this sense, innocent: like a monster, a fairy-tale character, “an inhuman creature who has thoughts stranger than his own.” There is something equally disturbing in falling from grace as well as in never doing so. There can be no love and no meaningful connection where no innocence is ever lost.

In a cycle, the novel ends in the same note it had started: in her childhood attic, Mariana had not known “where that country would be or what would happen there”; now, many years later, she still has an unknown country ahead, and her story ends with a beginning, with a “feeling of adventure about to begin”. She is doomed to her innocence, this unknown country of things that will one day be but not yet.

Yours truly,

J.


John Everett Millais – Mariana, 1851

 “For this — a voice in her mind continued, mocking her — you will go to Hell.  I will go to Hell, she answered herself gaily, and I shall have lovers there, since I cannot find a true love anywhere, her mind added wistfully. Surely there will be some man without a girl who will have me?”

*

She remembered a sentence from Llewelyn Powys’ Skin for Skin. “It is only very rarely that even the most clear sighted of us grasp the actual terms of our existence, each tremulous, intellectual soul being set shockingly apart to endure as best it may its own destruction.”


About the book

  • Virago Modern Classics, 1987, 294 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4,5 stars

Irrelevant footnote: Throughout my reading of this book, I was listening to Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (1824), and to this movement in particular:

so that now I cannot separate the book from Schubert’s piece in my mind, and Tennyson’s poem has also started to be mixed in this mess. Does that also happen to you when you read a book?

 

4 thoughts on “Some strange and fundamental innocence

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