The Friendly Young Ladies (1944. Published in the USA as The Middle Mist, 1945) is at its best when walking the tight rope of double meanings: its core is left unsaid, and from this disappearing act you draw a delicious satire.
Seventeen-year-old Elsie runs away from her stifling family in Cornwall, to search for her older sister, the tomboyish Leonora. It’s 1937. Leo, as she prefers to be called, had left home nine years earlier, when Elsie was still a child. The family never mentions her name, and Elsie, fuelled by the romance novels she likes to read, always assumed that Leo had run away with a man and was “living in sin” as a “fallen woman”.
Encouraged by Peter, a young doctor on whom she develops a crush, Elsie decides to look for her sister. Soon, she finds out that Leo is living on a houseboat with a “close friend” (in Elsie’s eyes), Helen, on the banks of the Thames, not far from London.
Leo has kept her tomboyish ways, and makes a living by writing trashy Westerns under the pen name “Tex O’Hara”. She and Helen share a life and a bed, and occasionally flirt with other men and women.
Fascinated by her sister’s bohemian lifestyle (and completely oblivious to the true nature of Leo’s relationship with Helen), Elsie invites Peter to visit them in the boat. When Peter arrives, he sets out to seduce the couple (and fails miserably).
You centre your satire on Peter and Elsie, and the many ways they misunderstand Helen and Leo. Peter is the kind of man blinded by his inflated sense of self-importance: “His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”
He is so sure of himself and of his self-imposed mission to “cure” Helen and Leo by seducing them, that he completely ignores the fact that the tables are turned: soon, it is Helen and Leo who start playing cat and mouse with him. In a hilarious scene, Leo outrageously flirts with Peter’s girlfriend and seduces her – and it is a pleasure to watch Peter’s reaction as the penny slowly drops.
Much of the fun of the book also comes from the contrast between what the reader knows and what escapes poor Elsie’s comprehension (and her narrow powers of imagination) about Helen and Leo’s relationship. When Elsie finds Leo sharing a bed with Helen, she naively supposes that they are doing it only temporarily, so as to make room for her in the boat… “It must be restful to be Elsie, not touching reality at any point of the compass. I wonder how it feels”.
Unfortunately, Elsie’s arrival and her refusal to acknowledge reality will trigger a series of events that will change the delicate balance of Helen and Leo’s life. To make matters more complicated, there is a strong erotic charge between Leo and one of the neighbours, Joe. Joe is also a writer and Leo finds great joy in the comradeship she shares with him. Things get messy, however, when he starts to emotionally blackmail her.
As in The Charioteer (1953), I am always in awe of your ability to be both so subtle and so transparent, making your point clear without ever mentioning it directly. “Love is a word, like God, which can be used to beg every kind of question.”
You once said to have written The Friendly Young Ladies (1943) as a response to the humourlessness of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). And, for the most part, your novel does just that.
Except for the ending. You said it yourself: it is a stupid ending. The book suddenly loses all of its freshness, its wry sense of humour, and its emotional sophistication, and very much reverts to everything that made you cringe about The Well of Loneliness. It only reinforces the heteronormative frame you were trying to disrupt. The ending is completely out of tune with the rest of the novel, like a transplanted limb that will never fit. It is a pointless ending. And it is so, so sad.
The past and the future closed together in her, a weight and a meaning too strong for the tiny bridge of the present to bear; as if they would crack it with their force and leave her, blank and nothing, in the gap between. There was a moment when she wanted the bridge to break, and let her escape from both of them. But the bridge held; and, in the very interval of refusal and fear, she found that she had crossed it, not now, but already, while the trippers cheered and played their accordion, and she waved from the rocking window. – Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies
‘As long as that? Yours must be a very – unusual relationship.’ ‘I expect most relationships are unusual when one knows enough about them. We’re pretty well used to ours; it seems quite ordinary to us.’ ‘It must demand great courage… from both of you.’ ‘What a queer thing to say. It takes less effort than any other relationship we’ve either of us tried. That’s why we go on living together, naturally.’ – Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies
For no reason on which one could put one’s finger, it made death seem a thing with which one had to come to terms while one was living, even a kind of door in oneself through which it was necessary to pass in order to live. It was all very quiet, terrifyingly quiet and cool. It offered no escape and no promises. It simply put the thing before one, and left one alone with it. – Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies
Thought’s secrecy must be one of the most wonderful of the works of God. Everything else is explorable, or violable, or reacts to chemistry, or can be laid open with a knife. But thought can only be given. That’s the ultimate dignity of man. – Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies